Thursday, 24 February 2011

Penguin no. 5: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
by Dorothy L. Sayers

      "All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don't it? It's my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn't run it for all it's worth. However, it don't do to say so. They'd hoof me out of the Club if I raised my voice beyond a whisper."
      "They'd do that anyway, whatever you were saying."

We are introduced to the Bellona Club through the eyes of its younger members, veterans of the First World War. It is a quiet, staid London gentlemen's club for those who have served in the military. They liken it to a morgue or a funeral parlour, full of old men with nothing much to do. And there is an air of disdain for the older men, veterans of earlier wars; they are presented as out of touch, clinging to old traditions, complaining about trivial grievances.

So there is no particular concern when an old General is found dead in the Club on Armistice Day, seated in his favourite chair by the fire, the newspaper in his hands. Rigor Mortis is well established, perhaps beginning to wear off, suggesting that he has been dead for some considerable time. The Club is so lifeless that nobody noticed. But he was 90 years old, and known to have a weak heart. His doctor signs the death certificate and he is quietly buried without further investigation. Perhaps it is a little unusual that the General's sister dies the same day.

The problems begin when the wills are read, for then it becomes vitally important to determine which of the siblings died first. Lady Dormer was wealthy; if her death came first a substantial part of the wealth passes to the General, and then onto his grandsons George and Robert Fentiman. But if the General predeceased her, the fortune passes to her companion Ann Dorland. A settlement cannot be reached. Lord Peter Wimsey is a member of the Club, one of the younger men, and known as an amateur detective with links to Scotland Yard. He is encouraged by the Fentiman family to investigate the time of death further. He finds that all of the involved parties have something to hide.

This is a book in two parts, perhaps not intentionally so, but that is how it reads. I read the first half with very little interest, almost with hostility. The clues seemed as subtle as neon lights in the Club, they pointed in only one direction, and the storyline plodded steadily towards it. I felt an antipathy to the tone of the book. I disliked the way the younger characters were unpleasantly cynical and condescending, not only to their elders but to anyone different to themselves. And I didn't take to the flippant, wealthy Lord Wimsey. His investigations seem unhampered by the constraints of time and money. In this story he alone is right, and he is always right. His every conjecture is spot on, like a man getting heads with every throw.

And then somewhere towards the middle of the book, you turn a page and find the story suddenly springs to life. The course the story takes cannot be foreseen, as it depends on factors not previously revealed. And in this sense the second half of the book is unlike a typical detective story - the clues which are essential for the resolution are uncovered through luck rather than detection. Another more interesting, perceptive and caring side of Lord Wimsey is revealed. And his seeming omniscience serves an important purpose: the reader knows the solution even though the crime may never be adequately solved. Juries don't always get it right, and a price is paid by the wrongly accused even if the correct verdict is returned. I enjoyed the second half of this book immensely; the first half not at all.

There are other interesting aspects to the book. Ms Sayers seems to be playing an intellectual game with her chapter titles: while they reflect the twists and turns of the story, they all refer to card games in some way, and some are rather obscure. There is a small discussion on books and authors, and a reflection on why people choose to read the books they do. And there is one chapter mocking fads, the idea that science can solve problems simply, and the social need to adopt them. Perhaps the most important theme, though, is about the experiences and attitudes of the soldiers who returned from the First World War, and their rejection of the values of the generations that preceded them. In the end I found it to be an interesting book, and I'm glad I persevered.


  1. Have you read any other of the Wimsey books? I totally agree with your assessment of his character. His quirks are almost forgivable, though, when read in the context of the series, particularly the novels which touch specifically on the war and shell shock. Great review and I completely envy your collection! Ellie.

  2. I'm a Sayers fan, so I like anything she wrote. Re the chapter titles, all of them seem to refer to card games, though I haven't figured out all the references. E.g. I don't know what "Old Mossy-Face" refers to - one of the face cards?

  3. No, it refers to the Ace of Spades, as the British version for a long time showed the tax-imprint: the royal arms with an extreme amount of ‘engravers lettuce’ ornamentation. And when the tax was no longer collected (partly) through the Ace of Spades, and the playing-card makers were free to print their own, they designed their trade marks to take its place very much in the same general style.

    A better known nickname of this ornamental ace is ‘Old Frizzle’.

  4. Interesting. I didn't know this about the Ace of Spades.



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