Dorothy Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

Previously published March 18, 2014

Title: Clouds of Witness
Author: Dorothy Sayer
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Published in 1926

Summary from Goodreads: When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear.

After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder. The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

” my love swears that she is made of truth
I will believe her, though I know she lies”

The second Peter Wimsey novel begins with Peter on an extended holiday in Corsica, enjoying the sights and recovering from the events of “Whose Body.” His trip is cut short when Bunter informs him that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder.

You may remember the quote I put in my post about Whose Body, (and I swear that I did not know what was coming in this book), where Peter tells Gerald that someday he will be happy to have a sleuth in the family, saying cheerfully, “You may come to want me yourself, you never know.”

Now we know.

Clouds of Witness relies heavily on the coincidence, and a series of illicit nighttime encounters. I always love these English Country House murders where everyone is rambling about all night long, practically tripping over one another. That’s what we have here. Gerald literally trips over the body of Cathcart, our victim, at the same moment that Lady Mary, his now estranged fiancee, is coming out the door. Things look bad for the Duke of Denver.

Fortunately for him, Lord Peter is on the case.

There is a lot going on in this book. While the Duke awaits trial, Peter is questing about the country, the continent, and eventually, the world, looking for clues to explain who killed Denis Cathcart. He meets a miserable farmer named Grimethorpe whose long-suffering wife is indeed long-suffering. He discovers that his sister, Lady Mary, has been secretly engaged to a socialist named Goyle. An engagement that has been brutally broken-up by the Duke, who threatened to cut them both off without a shilling if the marriage went through:

“Monstrous!” said Miss Tarrant, shaking her head so angrily that she looked like shock-headed Peter. “Barbarous! Simply feudal, you know. But, after all, what’s money?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Peter. “But if you’ve been brought up to havin’ it it’s a bit awkward to drop it suddenly. Like baths, you know.”

(I love this quote. It made me laugh).

There is also a lovely courtroom scene, where Sir Impey Biggs stands for the defence:

The Dowager Duchess had once remarked: “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.”

On the other side of the table, we have Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General, for the crown. That name is pure awesome.

There is a lot of humor in this book, and a bit of silliness Sir Peter, ultimately, finds the necessary witness to determine what really happened to Denis Cathcart. I am not going to tell you here, so if you want to know, you will have to read for yourself.

In the words of Sir Impey Briggs:

“Since, however, by a series of unheard-of coincidences, the threads of Denis Cathcart’s story became entangled with so many others, I will venture to tell it once again from the beginning, lest, in the confusion of so great a cloud of witnesses, any point should still remain obscure.”

Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Originally published on March 24, 2014

Title: Unnatural Death
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Published in 1927

Summary from Goodreads: When a terminally ill woman dies much earlier than expected, Lord Peter suspects murder…

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Three days later, she is dead. Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

This was a very enjoyable installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter’s relationship with Parker becomes more collegial, and we are introduced to a new character by the name of Mrs. Climpson. I hope Mrs. Climpson sticks around, because she is wonderful.

The book begins with Parker and Wimsey having dinner at a club on a pleasant April evening. They are talking of murder, of course, and a young doctor interrupts their pleasant discussion to tell them a tale of a suspected murder most foul: an elderly woman who was quite ill, but who died so suddenly that the young doctor suspects foul play.

Unnatural Death is a lot of fun. Before Lord Peter can solve the murder, he must prove that a murder has been committed.

“This is the real sleuth—my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He’s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’ Well, look here—if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a go at this. If you’ll entrust me with your name and address and the names of the parties concerned, I’d like very much to have a shot at looking into it.”

And he does, and of course, he discovers that the murderer has committed a near perfect crime, and for the basest of motives. The murderer in this book is quite a nasty piece of work, and before long, bodies are piling up like cord wood.

Lord Peter’s Daimler Twin-Six makes its first appearance in this book as well. For those of you not familiar with the Daimler, it looks something like this:

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Overall, this is probably my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries so far. I love the legal twist to the motive, the murderer is both clever and exceptionally cold-blooded.

M.M. Kaye

Death in the Andamans by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in the Andamans
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1960

Plot summary from Goodreads: Death in the Andamans is a masterpiece of mystery and romance from one of our most beloved authors. When a violent storm lashes the tiny Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, Copper Randal barely manages a safe return to Government House. She does get back in one piece with her hostess, Valerie Masson, Val’s fiance, and handsome naval officer Nick Tarrent, but one of the islanders is unaccounted for when the boats return to harbor. Cut off from the mainland and confined to the shadowy, haunted guest quarters, Copper and the other visitors conclude that one of their number is a murderer. The killer must be found before the storm destroys all trace of any possible clues.

M.M. Kaye is best known for her best selling epic The Far Pavilions, a novel set in British Raj India and published in 1978. I was 12 when The Far Pavilions was published, and read it when I was maybe 14. It was an incredibly formative novel for me, igniting a love of door-stop-sized books and historical fiction.

As it happens, Kaye had published six mystery novels with romantic subplots prior to publishing The Far Pavilions, which I found when I went looking for more books by her, after polishing off her second major work, The Shadow of the Moon. Each of her mysteries is set in an exotic location that was part of the British Empire, except for her second, Death in Berlin. Death in the Andamans was the last of them, published in 1960. They are billed as a series, although each of them contains different characters and different settings, so the only commonality is in the theme.

Each book centers around a young, innocent, and attractive woman who is travelling to an interesting locale. The Andamans, apparently, are an archipelago of islands between India and Myanmar. I only know this because I googled it, having never heard of the Andamans prior to reading this book. The British established a penal colony there in the 1840’s, and the islands were occupied by the Japanese during WWII. They also figure prominently in the second full length Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four.

Death in the Andamans is set over Christmas and is a classic closed circle mystery. Copper Randall, the heroine, has inherited a small legacy, which she used to promptly throw up her job and accept her friend Val’s invitation to come out to the Andamans, where Val’s father is the British official in charge, living in Government House. Once she arrives, she meets Nick Tarrant, handsome naval officer and erstwhile swain.

On Christmas eve, a great storm severs contact between Government House, where our characters are trapped over the holiday, and the outside world. When one of the characters, an unappealing fellow with a whole raft full of enemies, turns up having been murdered, Copper, Val, Nick, and Val’s fiance, must solve the mystery and stay alive.

M.M. Kaye’s romance subplots are always extremely chaste, with absolutely no premarital hanky panky, excepting a possible kiss or two, in spite of the fact that we have four lusty young people running through corridors in their night clothes and otherwise behaving like they are at a slumber party. It’s refreshingly simple. The setting is wonderfully exotic, and M.M. Kaye’s descriptions are evocative of time and place.

This is the third of her Death In books that I’ve read this year. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Death in Kashmir, which was the first I read. I’ve not yet reviewed that one, or the other, Death in Cyprus – which is my least favorite of the three, although it is still plenty entertaining. I, somewhat sadly, only have three left – Death in Zanzibar, Death in Berlin (the one I have queued up right now) and Death in Kenya.

M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in Berlin
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1955

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Miranda Brand is visiting Germany for what is supposed to be a month’s vacation. But from the moment that Brigadier Brindley relates the story about a fortune in lost diamonds–a story in which Miranda herself figures in an unusual way–the vacation atmosphere becomes transformed into something more ominous. And when murder strikes on the night train to Berlin, Miranda finds herself unwillingly involved in a complex chain of events that will soon throw her own life into peril. Set against a background of war-scarred Berlin in the early 1950s, M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin is a consummate mystery from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

I liked this installment, but I didn’t love it. It started strong, with a murder on a train that was reminiscent of The Murder on the Orient Express – mysteries set on trains are an especial weakness of mine. However, once we arrived in Berlin, I just wasn’t feeling the love for the setting. Post-war Berlin was grim, and although the discussion of the different sections of a divided city was interesting, I prefer the more exotic settings in her other books.

This particular book contained a lot of regressive themes and tropes. Older women are haggard, aging, rapidly losing their appeal. Young women are blooming and fresh. The male characters, especially Richard – the main character’s cousin – have important work to do with the British government, while the women have servants and seem to do very little at all. While I expect to get those kinds of elements in a book that was published in 1955, it was even more obvious in this book than it often is.

A few other things that bothered me with this book included the primary love interest/main investigator Simon Lang. In the other M.M. Kaye mysteries I’ve read, there is more of an equality of investigation between the heroine & hero. In this one, Lang does all of the work, and pretty much excludes Miranda from the process of figuring out whodunit. In addition, he literally uses her as bait to trap the murderer, and then his proposal of marriage is presumptuous and arrogant, telling Miranda that he will be her husband, not asking her to marry him.

So, this is the least favorite of the M.M. Kaye’s mysteries so far. It is well-written and the plot is interesting, but I didn’t engage with the characters, and found the setting to be humdrum.

Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

Patricia Wentworth

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.

Gladys Mitchell

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Saltmarsh Murders
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Series: Mrs. Bradley #4
First published: 1932

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Noel Wells, curate in the sleepy village of Saltmarsh, likes to spend his time dancing in the study with the vicar’s niece, until one day the vicar’s unpleasant wife discovers her unmarried housemaid is pregnant and trouble begins.

It is left to Noel to call for the help of sometime-detective and full-time psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, who sets out on an unnervingly unorthodox investigation into the mysterious pregnancy, an investigation that also takes in a smuggler, the village lunatic, a missing corpse, a public pillory, an exhumation and, of course, a murderer.

Mrs. Bradley is easily one of the most memorable personalities in crime fiction and in this classic whodunit she proves that some English villages can be murderously peaceful.

Opinionated, unconventional, unafraid… If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you’ll love Mrs Bradley.

This was my first foray into the long-running Mrs. Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was born in 1901, and published her first Mrs. Bradley mystery, A Speedy Death, in 1929. She was a prolific author, publishing 66 of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries. She was also a teacher in girls schools for many years (now I’m thinking Miss Bulstrode, from The Cat Among the Pigeons), and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She was more prolific than both.

The Saltmarsh Murders is book #4 in the series. I’ve never seen the Diana Riggs BBC adaptation, from 1998-2000, and this series didn’t really make it onto my radar screen until a friend referenced it in a blog post. After seeing the reference, I jumped over to Amazon to find out more and noted that all of the Mrs. Bradley books are available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. I’ve not yet cancelled my KU subscription, so I decided to check out one of them and see what I thought. This was literally a stab in the dark. I liked the title – it sound appropriately atmospheric – so I downloaded it and started reading.

Mrs. Bradley’s full name is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, which is just too good for me to overlook. The book is partially narrated by a young curate, and I was getting some (erroneous) Murder of Roger Ackroyd vibes from his narration. It’s a quirky tale, and I was frankly surprised, and not really convinced, by who-actually-dun-it. Mrs. Bradley herself was eccentric, and somewhat peculiar, not to mention physically hideous (she is variously described as crocodilian and reptilian, her hands clawlike). But it was fun to read, and I want to read more so I can get a better handle on the series.

According to Wikipedia, critical opinion is divided on what is her best work, her strengths and style can be gleaned from the following 16 books: The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Death at the Opera (1934), The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Come Away, Death (1937), Brazen Tongue (1940), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Death and the Maiden (1947), The Dancing Druids (1948), Tom Brown’s Body (1949), Groaning Spinney (1950), The Echoing Strangers (1952), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), Dance to Your Daddy (1969), Nest of Vipers (1979), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). This provides a helpful entree into the series.

There is a Gladys Mitchell tribute site, which can be found here, and which provides additional resources.