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Lord Peter Takes the Case

por Dorothy L. Sayers

Séries: Lord Peter Wimsey (2-3, 5, 7)

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[Lord Peter Takes the Case] is an omnibus edition containing the stories [Unnatural Death], [Clouds of Witness], [The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club], and [The Five Red Herrings]. I have read each of these stories exactly once before, so I cannot tell if this Book-of-the-Month Club edition has abridged any of them. The back of the dustjacket and the page preceding the title page both contain the fictional Debrett's entry for Lord Peter: family listing, including his marriage and oldest son; education, military service, authorship; hobbies, clubs; residences; heraldry. The incongruous bit of this is listing his bachelor Piccadilly flat but not the house and country cottage that comprise the homes of his married life. I wonder if it's like Baker Street being forever linked with Sherlock Holmes. And the irony of this official summary is that Bunter is nowhere listed, yet who is central to Lord Peter's continued existence and success as a sleuth. Thus, what is official too often differs from what is important.

The volume opens with “Biographical Note communicated by Paul Austin Delagardie.” Again, this is republished as I have read it in conjunction with other Lord Peter stories. It's a charming overview of Lord Peter's character, those of his immediate family, and so on. Critics have condemned Dorothy Sayers for the cardinal sin of falling in love with her own creation. It is completely understandable—I have quite a crush on Lord Peter Wimsey myself. He is portrayed as a feminist man well before the feminist movement of the 1960s. Educated, sensitive, caring, smart, capable of treating women as human beings and equals, usually by simply listening to them, believing they have valuable contributions to make, and offering them opportunities to shine. Born to privilege, and using that privilege to leverage justice and opportunity for others. And frequently pausing to reflect and reaffirm his course. What's not to love?

Anyway, on to the stories. As usual, each story is divided into chapters each with a title and opening with a literary quotation. In [Unnatural Death] and [Clouds of Witness], the 23 and 19 respective chapter titles are fairly prosaic but indicating the main point contained therein, and in [Unnatural Death] the chapters are organized into 3 sections, each with its own quotation. [The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club] is arranged into 22 chapters that riff on a bridge game, followed by a post-mortem that contains 5 snippets of dialogue that indicate the ending disposition of the various principles involved. Finally, [Five Red Herrings] has 29 chapters, each indicating the person driving the action in that chapter.

[Unnatural Death] opens with a bystander overhearing a dinner conversation between Lord Peter and his best friend and colleague (besides Bunter, that is), Charles Parker, an Inspector at Scotland Yard. The bystander is a doctor who had public doubts about an apparent natural death due to cancer that defied his predicted survival timeframe. He paid a high social cost for expressing his concern and wanted to move on. Lord Peter took his doubts seriously enough to figure out the name and location of the decedent and embark on an investigation. This is the book where Charles is introduced to Miss Climpson, Lord Peter's premier confidential agent, hilariously misunderstood to be a love interest in a discreet love nest. Peter sends Miss Climpson to the village to dig up gossip and observe the local characters involved. And Bunter plays a role at appropriate moments, as does Mr. Murbles, Lord Peter’s solicitor. Charles Parker doesn't believe there's anything to investigate for the first half of the story, until additional people associated with the case die of apparent natural causes and a motive is finally uncovered. By the end, there were 3 murders, 3 attempted murders, and 1 suicide, all starting with an old woman supposedly dying of metastatic cancer in the hospice care of the day. The visual aid of a genealogical table at the end helps put the motive in perspective. I think it might be the highest body count of any of the Lord Peter mysteries, and certainly one of the most violent near misses. . The murderer is unrepentant and fighting to the end. This book was very much a contemplation on gender norms and roles and implicit lesbian relationships, as well as Lord Peter questioning whether his activities cause more harm than good

[Clouds of Witness] opens with Lord Peter returning from a vacation in Corsica, on the advice of Sir Julian Freke in the wake of the "Battersea Mystery" (ie, the events in [Whose Body?]). His leisurely stopover in Paris turns into a rush home because his brother, the Duke of Denver has been arrested for the murder of Captain Denis Cathcart, who was engaged to their younger sister, Lady Mary Wimsey. The three of them, along with some additional guests (2 couples and Freddy Arbuthnot, a frequent supporting character) were staying at Riddlesdale Lodge in Yorkshire, supposedly for a hunting holiday. This is the closest view we get of Lord Peter’s family, and the book where Charles and Mary meet. The events leading up to the death of Captain Cathcart are a collision course of hidden agendas on the parts of Gerald, Duke of Denver, Captain Cathcart, and Lady Mary. Both Gerald and Mary have something to hide, leading to confusion, suspicion, perjury, stonewalling, and false confession, not to mention misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions, and misperceptions of the various bystander witnesses. Lord Peter and Charles must go to great lengths to follow the case: the wild moors of Yorkshire, Captain Cathcart’s apartment in Paris, the Soviet Club in London. Mr Murbles and Sir Impey Biggs are both frustrated with the lack of cooperation by their ducal client. The case goes all the way to trial in the House of Lords, with all of the archaic pageantry and tabloid headlines. It’s played for maximum melodrama, including a secret witness and an eleventh hour overseas flight in a two-seater airplane during a thunderstorm to secure the critical evidence and the courtroom denouement.

[The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club] is another apparent death of natural causes that unravels into tampering with a corpse and murder. Like [Unnatural Death], the motivation revolves around securing an inheritance. In this instance, Lord Peter’s lawyer, Mr. Murbles asks him to ascertain the time of death of General Fentiman, who appeared to pass away in his sleep in front of the fire in Bellona Club on Armistice Day. Both younger Fentimans and Dr. Penberthy, the family doctor, are also members are on scene in the Bellona Club when old General Fentiman is discovered, and all play key roles in ensuing events. The question is whether he predeceased his estranged sister, Felicity Dormer, who died after a prolonged illness around the same time after their deathbed rapprochement. If so, the bulk of her estate will pass to her niece, Miss Ann Dorland, who dabbles in art and science. If not, then the bulk of her estate will pass to his grandsons, bachelor Captain George Fentiman (on active duty) and Robert Fentiman, married and disabled after war injuries, including PTSD, and dependent on his wife’s employment income. Lord Peter warns Mr. Murbles that he might not like the outcome of the investigation, and it might not be in the best interest of the Fentimans, his clients. Mr. Murbles insists on the integrity of his clients and the importance of the truth. The investigation involves a mysterious witness, an exhumation, a detective agency following leads in mainland Europe, a shifty-looking lawyer and legal assistant. Lord Peter uses his connection (Marjorie Phelps, the ceramicist) in the artsy/intelligentsia community to get a handle on Ann Dorland’s character and motivations. The murderer and other principle actors display varying degrees of remorse and regret. Bunter is involved early on by pretending to be a journalist to photograph the club interior, but Charles Parker doesn’t show up until about a third of the way into the story. Colonel Marchbank is a recurring minor character who was one of the guests in [Clouds of Witness] and is the reason for Lord Peter’s presence in the Bellona Club at the beginning of this story. The tabloid journalists show up again too. The minor recurring characters provide valuable continuity among the various stories. Another perpetrator who feels remorse, or at least that there’s only one way to make the situation better, thanks to Lord Peter’s convincing argumentation.

[Five Red Herrings] is a play on the timetable style of whodunit, and opens with a map of the area showing roads, train routes, and local towns and villages. It’s set in Galloway, Scotland, and the victim and suspects are all painters, a mix of year-round locals and seasonal artists. The story opens with the dead man’s last night, which includes a bar fight that Lord Peter breaks up, and a roadside confrontation later on. The death was arranged to look like an accident while painting the following morning, but Lord Peter quickly discerns that it must have been staged based on a vital missing clue that is not revealed until the end. Early on, train time tables are provided as well, as this is a key part of people’s movements and establishing alibis. The victim was generally awful, treated everyone horribly, thus resulting in a multitude of suspects (and so, the title of the story). The situation is a jumble of angry motivations of suspiciously absent suspects with partial or fabricated or no alibis; mysterious strangers on bikes, trains and automobiles; stolen bicycles and surprising witnesses; and general confusion. Charles Parker has a small role because one of the suspects disappears from Galloway and turns up in London. The case is being investigated by Lord Peter and Bunter, local Constables Ross and Duncan, local Sergeant Dalziel, Inspector Macpherson, Chief Constable Sir Maxwell Jamieson. The end of the book begins with all of the investigators coming together, each pitching their own theory featuring a different suspect, proposed timetable, and explanation for the assembled evidence. After hearing the cases against the 5 red herrings, Lord Peter proposes recreating the crime and the movements of the real perpetrator. This action takes up the last 3 chapters, convincing his fellow investigators who go along either roleplaying victim and suspects or simply observers, to the bemusement and surprise of various previously interviewed witnesses and new bystanders along the route. It’s a pretty rousing climax that results in a confession and sense of relief by the perpetrator. ( )
  justchris | Jan 18, 2016 |
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Lord Peter Wimsey stretched himself luxuriously between the sheets provided by the Hotel Meurice.
"But if he thought the woman was being murdered..."
If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.
"What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this morgue?" demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside the "Evening Banner" with the air of a man released from an irksome duty.
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