Imperial fiction: Golden Age detection 2

When you arrive at a person’s house with no intention beyond selling him a case of whisky or a dozen or so of port, it is disconcerting to find him stretched on his own kitchen floor, with his head battered to pulp. Mr Egg had served two years on the Western Front, but he did not like what he saw. He put the tablecloth over it.
– Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Murder in the Morning’ (1933)

golden - bellona

This is the second episode in a three-part reflection on some novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Part 1 looked at Margery Allingham, and this time it’s Dorothy L Sayers.

And so we come to Dorothy L Sayers, the most critically acclaimed of the Queens of Crime.

Like Albert Campion, her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, also starts out as a kind of sub-Wodehouse fop before he coalesces into a far more complex figure. He too served in the war, and was invalided out following an explosion in 1918: ‘I was in a nursing home – with shell-shock – and other things,’ he explains, and it took him two years to recover from ‘a bad nervous breakdown’. He’s mostly recovered and, having worked in military intelligence, he’s now pursuing a civilian career as a detective. But he can never quite shake off his war experience: ‘At the end of every case we had the old nightmares and shell-shock over again.’

In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), he seeks to help an old friend, George Fentiman, who was gassed in the trenches and also suffered from shell-shock. His condition is worse than that of Wimsey, and manifests in ‘queer fits’, which

generally ended in his going off and wandering about in a distraught manner for several days, sometimes with partial and occasionally with total loss of memory. There was the time when he had been found dancing naked in a field among a flock of sheep and singing to them… Then there was a dreadful time when George had deliberately walked into a bonfire.

The Bellona Club, where the mystery is set, is a place for crusty old types, men such as George’s grandfather, General Fentiman, who saw action in the nineteenth century. Rather like General Feversham in AEW Mason’s The Four Feathers, he still thinks of military life in terms of those earlier conflicts, so that for him, ‘the Crimea is still the War.’ His grandson is frustrated that the old man doesn’t recognize how things have changed: ‘Damn it all, I know he was in the Crimea, but he’s no idea what a real war’s like. He thinks things can go on just as they did half a century ago.’

And society more generally is seen to be failing the ex-servicemen represented by Fentiman fils:

‘What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his insides gassed out, and loses his job, and all they do is give him the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income tax.’

Wimsey agrees with him on the pointlessness of the Armistice Day commemorations: ‘It’s my belief most of us would be only too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.’ But, despite ‘the old nightmares’, Wimsey is a mostly settled man. It’s Fentiman who really can’t adjust. As he looks around at the old buffers dozing in their armchairs at the Bellona Club, he despairs: ‘I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ’em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing?’

golden - clouds 2

A less sympathetic version of the war veteran turns up in Sayers’s Clouds of Witness (1926), in the shape of Denis Cathcart. When his father died back in Edwardian days, Cathcart inherited a substantial sum invested in foreign property, and – unlike his aunt, who converted her legacy ‘into good, sound British securities’ – he went for the higher returns of investments on the continent. On the strength of his financial success, he was just starting to become known as a diplomat. But then had come 1914:

Across this promising career there falls the thunderbolt of the Great War – ruthlessly smashing through his safeguards, overthrowing the edifice of his ambition, destroying and devastating here, as everywhere, all that made life beautiful and desirable.

The income from his Russian and German investments ceased entirely, and even his French property was bringing in just a quarter of its pre-war yield. To compensate for his lost revenues, he turned to gambling and then to cheating at cards, a taint that pursues him, despite the fact that he ‘had a meritorious military career’. Consequently, his social and financial position is precarious: ‘he knew – none better – that his house was built on sand.’

In all this, Cathcart is seen as suspiciously rootless, an Englishman with far too great an attachment to foreign ways. So when he’s murdered, no one seems particularly distressed; it presents a puzzle, but there’s little sense of loss since he never really fitted in anyway. As the coroner at the inquest into his death explains, he ‘had been educated in France, and French notions of the honest thing were very different from British ones’. Even his aunt, his only living relative, shares the same distaste: ‘I fear Denis’s notions were always quite French.’

His appearance raises eyebrows too. ‘Cathcart was the kind of man who always impressed you as bein’ just a little too well turned out,’ observes Wimsey, who is himself always impeccably dressed. A woman who runs a beauty salon in New Bond Street says the dead man came in regularly for massages and manicures: ‘He was extremely particular about his personal appearance, and, if you called that vanity in a man, you might certainly say he was vain.’ And his housekeeper in Paris confirms the impression: ‘He kept his things very tidy; he was not like English gentlemen in that respect.’

As well as his place in Paris, Cathcart also had a flat in the Albany, though it shows personal touches beyond ‘a few modern French novels of the usual kind’ and an edition of the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731), ‘with what the catalogues call “curious” plates’. His bibliographical taste clearly runs in this direction: in his Parisian apartment he has ‘a famous French edition of the Decameron with the additional plates.’ None of this is to be seen as a recommendation.

Temperamentally, he wasn’t to be relied upon, either. ‘Not at all like a straightforward Englishman,’ says one character. ‘Always up and down, up and down!’ Or, as his fiancée puts it: ‘He was very moody, never the same two days together.’ In short, concludes Inspector Charles Parker, he was a ‘Byronic blighter’.

That fiancée, incidentally, is Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s kid sister. Cathcart’s intention had been that, after their marriage, they’d ‘go and live in Paris, where they understand sex.’ By which he meant that the two had agreed to live separate lives, and he’d be able to use her money to support his mistress.

golden - clouds

So it wasn’t exactly a perfect match, but then Lady Mary’s not noted for the appropriateness of her romantic attachments. Most notably there had been that episode towards the end of the war when she was working as a volunteer nurse in London, and got herself mixed up with – in her brother’s words – ‘some pacifist fellow who was a bit of a stumer’.

More precisely, Lady Mary spent six months as secretary to the Propaganda Society of the Soviet Club, having fallen in love with George Goyles, an active speaker for leftist causes. Which gives Sayers a chance to indulge in a bit of left-baiting satire. The Soviet Club is a place ‘full of Russians and sucking Socialists taking themselves seriously,’ according to Mary’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, who disapproves strongly:

you ate such horrible food, all packed into an underground cellar painted pink and talking away at the tops of their voices, and never any evening dress – only Soviet jumpers and side-whiskers.

The dress code for lady socialists is seen when one of Lady Mary’s old school chums turns up: ‘a cheerful young woman with bobbed red hair, dressed in a short checked skirt, brilliant jumper, corduroy jacket, and a rakish green velvet tam-o’-shanter.’ She’s eager to get Lord Peter to come along for a big event at the Club: ‘Mr Coke – the Labour leader, you know – is going to make a speech about converting the Army and Navy to Communism.’ Sadly, we don’t get to hear Mr Coke, but we do eavesdrop on an informal literary discussion: ‘Joyce has freed us from the superstition of syntax,’ argues one of the gathered socialists, and another asks: ‘Have you heard Robert Snoates recite his own verse to the tom-tom and the penny whistle?’ (This is surely the world to which John Heritage aspires in John Buchan’s Huntingtower, before Dickson McCunn shows him the error of his ways.)

Lady Mary still carries a torch for George Goyles, but from her family’s perspective it’s a completely impossible union, and she’s been persuaded to settle for Cathcart. He may be a bounder, but at least he’s from good stock.

At one point Goyles is in the frame for murdering Cathcart, and Lady Mary tries to understand how he could be capable of such an act: ‘of course, with his revolutionary doctrines – and when you think of Red Russia and all the blood spilt in riots and insurrections and things – I suppose it does teach a contempt for human life.’ But Lord Peter isn’t convinced that he’s up to it, and teases the poor man: ‘Why, it ought to be the proudest moment of your life when you’re really looked on as a dangerous fellow.’

Wimsey’s right, of course. Goyles is ultimately revealed to be a coward: a ‘thin and wobbly-minded’ man in Inspector Parker’s words; ‘A Socialist Conchy of neither bowels nor breeding,’ in Wimsey’s. And when his weakness is uncovered, the socialist scales fall from Lady Mary’s eyes. That evening she dines in the rooms of the old family solicitor, a confirmed bachelor who has little time for modern fashion, and she sinks back into the familiar embrace of her heritage, a world of old certainties:

His dining-room was furnished in mahogany, with a Turkey carpet and crimson curtains. On his sideboard stood some pieces of handsome Sheffield plate and a number of decanters with engraved silver labels round their necks. There was a bookcase full of large volumes bound in law calf, and an oil-painting of a harsh-featured judge over the mantelpiece. Lady Mary felt a sudden gratitude for this discreet and solid Victorianism.

This will come as welcome news to her maid, who always regarded Goyles as a ‘low-down sort of fellow’ with dubious political leanings: ‘I think he was one of them dirty Russians as wants to blow us all to smithereens – as if there hadn’t been enough people blown up in the war already!’ She’s not particularly impressed either by her mistress’s seemingly overwrought reaction to the death of her fiancé, as she explains to Wimsey’s valet, Bunter:

It’s very nice to be a ladyship, and all your tempers coddled and called nervous prostration. I know I was dreadfully cut up about poor Bert, my young man what was killed in the war – nearly cried my eyes out, I did; but, law! Mr Bunter, I’d be ashamed to go on so.

As the Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter’s sister-in-law, points out: ‘The lower orders are so prejudiced.’

Class is a bigger issue in Clouds of Witness than in later Sayers novels, perhaps because of its time: it was published just three months before the General Strike, and tensions were already high. Lord Peter Wimsey himself, normally considered a man of courtesy, is here criticized for his aristocratic condescension. ‘It’s the sneering of men like you, that does more to breed hatred between class and class,’ says George Goyles.

Well, Goyles is a communist, of course, and has no great love for Wimsey, so we don’t take too much account of him, but when his friend, the much more reliable Inspector Parker, raises the same complaint – ‘there’s no need to sneer’ – it begins to look as though Lord Peter’s breezy self-confidence may indeed be out of place in the modern world. Perhaps it’s just a chip on Parker’s shoulder (Wimsey went to Eton, Parker to Barrow-in-Furness Grammar), but the comment rattles Wimsey. ‘Is my manner really offensive, when I don’t mean it to be?’ he asks Bunter, who tries to be gentle with the truth: ‘It is possible, my lord, if your lordship will excuse my saying so, that the liveliness of your lordship’s manner may be misleading…’

I think we’re meant to assume that it is only his manner, not his attitude. For we also have the testimony of ‘a blue-nosed, ragged veteran, who had once assisted to dig Major Wimsey out of a shell-hole near Caudry,’ and he offers a glowing reference: ‘Gawd ’elp ’im, ‘e’s a real decent little blighter.’

And yet there’s one very strange atavistic moment that hints at something more.

Much of the novel is set in North Yorkshire, a not entirely congenial world. There are surly locals (‘These bounders about here are all Socialists and Methodists,’ according to the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot), and there is dangerous moorland, a ‘stretch of rough, reedy tussocks, with slobbering black bog between them, in which anything heavier than a water-wagtail would speedily suffer change into a succession of little bubbles’. It’s out on the moors, at a critical point in the investigation, that Wimsey encounters a farmer’s wife out on the moors, and such is her beauty that he is scarcely able to restrain himself:

a broad white forehead under massed, dusky hair, black eyes glowing under straight brows, a wide, passionate mouth – a shape so wonderful that even in that strenuous moment sixteen generations of feudal privilege stirred in Lord Peter’s blood.

golden - tailors

A later Sayers novel provides her most sophisticated war story. The Nine Tailors (1934) has a convoluted plot, even by her standards, but it’s an intriguing one. These are the salient points…

Back in April 1914, in a remote, isolated village in the Fens named Fenchurch St Paul, Henry Thorpe, son of the local landowner, got married. But the festivities were interrupted on the wedding night when one of the guests discovered that a valuable emerald necklace had been stolen. Two men were subsequently convicted of the theft: a jewel-thief from London and the family’s butler, a man named Deacon.

The necklace, however, was never recovered and each of the two convicted men blamed the other for double-crossing him. The judge particularly took against Deacon, disapproving of a crime ‘being committed by a servant in a position of trust, in a dwelling-house and his master’s dwelling-house at that’. He sent the ex-butler to gaol.

In 1918, Deacon broke out of Maidstone Prison, killing a warder along the way. A couple of years later, his corpse was found in a quarry – except that it transpires (much later) that it wasn’t Deacon’s body at all: it was the body of a soldier who Deacon had encountered while on the run. Deacon had killed him, swopped clothes and made his escape.

Dressed now in army uniform, he’d found his way to London, got mixed up with other troops, and ended up being shipped out to France. It seemed to be a case of escaping the frying-pan only to leap into the flames, except that he never reached the front line, being instead caught up in the panic that accompanied the German advances at the start of the Battle of the Marne. That, of course, was the last major German offensive of the war, and shortly thereafter came the Armistice.

Later, Deacon was to recount his brief experience of being shelled: ‘he said there was a noise like merry hell going on ahead, and the ground began to shake … Hell let loose, he said.’ But he was fortunate. He was knocked out by a piece of debris, only regaining consciousness after everyone else had left; he was subsequently taken in by a Frenchwoman who owned a farm and needed some help in the fields.

He stayed on after the war, pretending to be a French soldier who’d lost his memory. He married the farmer and settled down to a new life in Marne (‘a district endeared to many by the recollection of mud, blood, shell-holes and trench-feet’). Although he arouses some suspicion on the part of the French authorities, he sticks solidly to his story of amnesia. (‘He seemed to have forgotten the War,’ it is reported. ‘“Lucky devil!” said Wimsey, with feeling.’) The main thing is that he can’t return to England, where he’s officially dead, for fear that someone might recognize him. And this time he will hang for the murders of the prison warder and the soldier.


Meanwhile, the community in Fenchurch St Paul has fallen on hard times. Nothing has been the same since the theft of the necklace on the eve of hostilities. Sir Charles Thorpe, father of the bridegroom, feeling somehow responsible for the robbery, fell ill, ‘and then the War came and Sir Charles never got over it. He had another stroke and passed away’. His son, now Sir Henry, survived the conflict, but was badly wounded at Ypres and invalided out of the Army. By the 1920s he has depleted the family fortune in his pursuit of honour: he insisted that as the necklace was stolen on his property, he was duty-bound to compensate the wedding guest for the loss (the jewellery had not been insured).

The new decade brings further distress: Sir Henry’s wife dies at the beginning of 1930, one of several victims of a flu outbreak. That Easter, he too dies, but as the family plot is prepared for his funeral, the body of another man is found buried therein. It turns out to be that of Deacon, who has returned to the village in disguise, in search of the stolen necklace.

It transpires that Deacon, in trying to reclaim the emeralds lost in the last Easter of peace, was killed by the sheer noise of the church bells, a cacophony that echoes the ‘merry hell’ of the shelling in Marne.

It’s hard not to see all this as an allegory of the impact of the war itself, the ruinous times that have followed the crimes of 1914. And behind the whole tale is an awareness of the fragility of this land. The area is in constant danger of flooding, thanks to antiquated infrastructure and lack of investment in anti-flood defences. When the rains do finally come, it’s a deluge of Biblical proportions that sends the local inhabitants into the church on higher ground, as the village below is cleansed of its past…


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