In the same year that Sayers issued this work, the second full-length book to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, Agatha Christie released a modest volume titled The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The sharp contrast between these two novels from a peak year during the Golden Age of detective fiction raises a question: By what addled marketing logic did the authors of those works become yoked together as so-called Queens of Crime? Gender, of course, played a big part in the coining of that shared designation. But aside from being women who wrote about criminals and crime solvers, Christie and Sayers had little in common as creative figures. Christie, as she exultantly demonstrates in Ackroyd, excelled at devising intricate mechanisms that would enable her to misdirect and astound readers. Sayers, while she would exhibit greater ingenuity in later works, shows in Clouds of Witness that setting a complex, fair-play puzzle was an endeavor that tapped into neither her talents nor her interests. Rather than trick readers, she sought to treat them. In this instance, she treats them to a vision of good people rescued from adversity by a plucky hero. The tale that she constructs around that vision is a hearty assemblage of old-school narrative tropes, coincidence-laden plot turns, and workaday clues that Wimsey doesn’t so much discover as amble into—all of it held in place by a thick mortar of Tory sentiment.
In the first Wimsey adventure (Whose Body?), Sayers thrusts her hero into a social and criminal realm that lies well beyond the genteel drawing rooms and Clubland reading rooms that he knows best. Here, in his sophomore outing, she keeps him relatively close to his home ground. In fact, the case amounts to a family affair. It starts with the discovery of a dead body at a hunting lodge in Yorkshire leased by his brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver. The corpse belongs to Denis Cathcart, the fiancé of Denver’s (and Wimsey’s) sister, Lady Mary. Circumstances quickly evolve to a point where the police charge the duke with murder. It was Denver who stumbled upon the slain Cathcart in the wee hours of the morning, Denver who owned the gun used to shoot Cathcart, Denver who possessed the most obvious motive to eliminate Cathcart. (He had just received a letter that revealed Cathcart to be an unsuitable match for Mary.) When news of Denver’s arrest reaches Wimsey, the young lord swoops in to defend the duke’s—and his own—good name.
It’s easy to be annoyed by Wimsey, but it’s hard to dislike him. Like the prose that Sayers deploys to spin this tale, Wimsey exudes good-willed energy and high-spirited (albeit not always rigorous) intelligence. And, like the story that she builds around him, Wimsey seems to be ever on the move. He speeds from Paris to London and then, via airplane, from London to Yorkshire. He takes a jaunt to the Soviet Club, a bohemian dive in Soho. He gets shot and retreats briefly to his digs in Piccadilly Lane to recuperate from a glancing wound. He ventures to a market town near Denver’s lodge and—with his man, Bunter, in tow—scavenges for clues at a local public house. Most outlandishly, he rushes to New York City, again via airplane (and does so a year before Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic voyage), and returns just in time to deliver evidence that will exonerate Denver.
What happens in each spot where Wimsey lands never quite justifies the excitement that attends his arrival. Indeed, chapter by chapter, Clouds of Witness lurches ahead as a series of anti-climaxes. Yet what stands out amid the weak storytelling is Wimsey’s (and, by extension, Sayers’s) resolve to move forward—to carry on, if not necessarily to keep calm—even in the most trying of times. His brother is on trial for murder, his sister is reeling from the violent death of her fiancé, and his entire family is reckoning with the public exposure of its private business. For Wimsey, it’s all in a day’s work, and he approaches that work in a doggedly playful manner. In the wake of the Great War, a cataclysm whose shadow hangs over the novel like a burst of mustard gas, a fellow who could act briskly and grin bravely in the face of dire circumstances held strong appeal for millions of Britons, including (evidently) Sayers. Although she was hardly a paragon of Golden Age mystery writing, she was very much a writer of her time.
In place of a scene that would let Wimsey explain a series of masterly deductions—he performs little deductive reasoning, in the classic sense—Sayers presents a grand finale that occurs in the House of Lords, where the duke has come to be judged by his peers. This sequence allows her to go on at length about the legal bombast and regal (or, at any rate, ducal) pomp that surround the trial, and it points to the kind of thematic material that captured her imagination as a writer. Clearly Sayers revered Denver and adored Wimsey and admired the aristocratic values that they embody. For those who share her politics, Clouds of Witness offers a winning saga of the nobility at its best. For others, perhaps not so much.