“Books… are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.”
I didn’t plan on reading this but I finished Perfume last week and the copy of The Quickening Maze I’d ordered was taking ages to arrive at the library. This seemed like a nice way of filling the time while I waited. Of course, no sooner had I checked out The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and walked back to my office then my phone pinged with the notification that my requested library book had arrived and was now awaiting collection. Not to worry. I can’t say that being forced to read some Dorothy L. Sayers in the meantime is any sort of hardship.
This is only the second of Sayers’ books that I’ve read so I’m still a very new convert. This one doesn’t begin as a murder mystery but as a discreet investigation into the death of Old General Fentiman, who passes away quietly in his armchair by the fire at his gentleman’s club, The Bellona. His lawyer calls in Lord Peter Wimsey, the suave aristocratic detective, to determine a precise time of death and thus avert a legal dispute over the General’s estate. The case is of particular importance to Lord Peter as one of the legatees is his friend George Fentiman, whose mental health and livelihood are both at stake if the time of death is decided unfavourably. It takes a few twists and turns, this story, but I think most readers will guess pretty early on that the old General didn’t die quite as peaceably as Sayers leads us to believe at the beginning.
You can tell that this is a little earlier in the series and in Sayers’ writing career: it’s not quite as polished as The Nine Tailors, the plot ambles along slowly at times and there’s not nearly enough Bunter in it. This last one is probably the worst crime of all. Her scene setting is pretty perfect though and I can never get enough of the dialogue, particularly any scene in which Wimsey uses the phrases “What rot!”, “Jolly good!” or (my personal favourite) “Bung ho!”. He brings such humour to everything, without spoiling the sombre mood.
“Take him away!” said Fentiman, “Take him away. He’s been dead two days! So are you! So am I! We’re all dead and we never noticed it!”
I love the fact that Sayers’ characters are not merely plot devices, as Christie’s can be sometimes. Few of the characters in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are black and white, nor are they as wicked as you might suspect at the beginning. George Fentiman is the first to spring to mind here. I imagine it would’ve been quite easy for Sayers to portray George quite simply as a comic figure, a misogynistic brute and a layabout, but instead she treats the emotive subject of his shell shock and poverty with real feeling. Lord Peter’s sympathy with George, and his reluctance to involve himself in the case at all, is quite touching.
I guessed the culprit before the end (just as I did last time) but I didn’t really mind. More shocking, I thought, wasn’t the unmasking of the villain but the way in which Wimsey dealt with the situation. These were very different times indeed.