Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers, is the second Lord Peter Wimsey book and one of my 20 Books of Summer. It was first published in 1926. My copy was reprinted in 1984 and I bought it secondhand four years ago.

Clouds of witness Sayers

From the back cover of my paperback:

A man is found shot, and the Duke of Denver is charged with his murder. Naturally, it is his brother, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is called in to investigate the crime. This is a family affair, for the murdered man was the fiancé of the sister of Denver and Wimsey.

Why, then, does the Duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Is he really guilty, or is he covering up for someone? Why is Wimsey attacked by an enraged farmer on the lonely moors? Why is an attempt made on his life in a Soho street?

My thoughts:

So many questions! And as I read even more popped into my mind – why did Lady Mary, Wimsey’s sister, leave the house at 3am on the morning of the murder? Why is she feigning illness? Whose footprints are those near the body of Denis Cathcourt (the murdered man)? What is the significance of the diamond cat charm with eyes of bright emeralds? And why won’t the Duke defend himself? Then there are the bloodstains and signs that the body had been dragged to the door of the conservatory where it was found, leading into the nearby thicket. If the Duke didn’t kill Cathcart who did and why?

The evidence against the Duke is circumstantial. So, Wimsey has his work cut out to prove his innocence and save him from the death penalty. Together with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker (who is in love with Lady Mary), and Bunter, his manservant, they look for clues and interview the family’s guests on the night of the murder. There are several strands to the story and minor characters who all manage to confuse the mystery.

There are some memorable scenes, such as Wimsey and Bunter’s escapade on the moors when they attempted to get to Grider’s Hole. The fog had come on them suddenly, blotting out their surroundings and they had no idea what direction to take. They strode forward gingerly unable to distinguish uphill from downhill – then Wimsey tripped into a bog, and found himself sinking up to his thighs. As well as struggling in the foggy bog, Wimsey also got shot and rather dramatically flew to New York in pursuit of evidence, a dangerous journey in a fragile plane as a deep depression was crossing the Atlantic bringing storms with heavy rain and sleet, rising to a gale as the plane lurched from gust to gust.

The trial scene in the House of Lords is fascinating:

The historic trial of the Duke of Denver for murder opened as soon as Parliament reassembled after the Christmas vacation. The papers had leaderettes on ‘Trial by his Peers’, by a Woman Barrister, and ‘The Privilege of Peers: should it be abolished?’ by a Student of History. The Evening Banner got into trouble for contempt by publishing an article entitled ‘The Silken Rope’ (by an Antiquarian), which was deemed to be prejudicial, and the Daily Trumpet – the Labour organ – inquired sarcastically why, when a peer was tried, the fun of seeing the show should be reserved to the few influential persons who could wangle tickets for the Royal Gallery. (pages 217 -218)

Clouds of Witness is a book of its time, there is much banter, wit and humour, and plenty of snobbery of all types clearly showing the class distinctions between the working and upper classes. It is a clever story, well told, with colourful characters and I liked the details it gives about Wimsey’s family as I’ve been reading these books totally out of order.

All in all, I enjoyed it – 4*.

Reading challenges: 20 Books of Summer, Calendar of Crime, and Mount TBR challenge 2019

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

 A house with the darkest of secrets.

Family upstairs

Random House UK Cornerstone|8 August 2019|464 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Riviera Set

Little, Brown Book Group|November 2016|448 pages|Library book|3.5 rounded up to 4 on Goodreads*

When I read Cath’s review of The Riviera Set: 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess on her blog Read Warbler I thought it sounded fascinating, so I reserved a copy at the library. I has taken me almost a month to read it, but I did enjoy it.

Mary S Lovell explains in her Introduction that this is ‘less of a biography, more the story of a house and those who peopled it between the years 1930 and 1960.‘ The book begins with Maxine Elliott, telling of her early life  – she was an American, born Jessica Dermot in Rockland, Maine in 1868. She was a most remarkable woman who became an actress, famed for her beauty and her pure speaking voice. She came over to England, had successfully entered the Edwardian social scene in 1899 and after divorcing her husband, actor Nat Goodwin in 1908 she established herself at Hartsbourne, a country house in Hertfordshire. During the First World War she bought a barge and fitted it out as a first-aid clinic and soup kitchen to help with the war relief effort, bringing food and medical supplies to thousands of displaced people in Belgium. Many of the people who socialised at Hartsbourne flocked to visit her there. 

And then in 1930 she commissioned the architect Barry Dierks to build  the Chateau de l’Horizon on the land she had bought on a narrow stretch of rocks with a small promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, first of all about Maxine herself, then the description of the construction of the Chateaux and the years that Maxine owned it and lived there. Maxine really came into her own there as a superb hostess.

chateau de l'horizon

Regular visitors included Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham among many others – famous actors and actresses as well as members of the aristocracy and politicians. I was interested in Clementine Churchill’s reaction to the Riviera set – she disapproved of their behaviour and often didn’t accompany him on his visits.  She also disapproved of Winston’s gambling at the Casino. Then there were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who lived nearby before the Second World War – the picture painted of them is not flattering – and there was much talk about how to address Wallis and whether the women should curtsy to her. By the time the War approached Maxine had lost her sparkle, suffering from ill health and she died in March 1940.

And after her death nothing was the same – and my interest in the book began to wane. The Chateau was bought by Aly Khan, the Aga Khan’s heir presumptive at the time. There is quite a lot about his time there, his womanising, his marriage to Rita Hayworth and the social scene of the post-war period up to 1960. Nevertheless it is a fascinating and entertaining book about a pampered, luxurious and decadent world.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stepleton

Narrative Non-Fiction 4*

Adventures of Maud West

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton and published by Picador, is subtitled ‘Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime‘. With a title like that I thought it sounded just the sort of book I would like – and I did.

It is so intriguing – was Maud West really who she said she was? Susannah Stapleton discovered that she really did exist and was indeed a private investigator with her own detective agency, based in London in the early part of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards.  The book gives plenty of extracts from Maud West’s own accounts of her investigations under Golden Age crime fiction titles such as The Lady Vanishes, The Body in the Library, and They Do It With Mirrors, for example. But these accounts had me wondering just what was the truth and what was fiction. They are so incredible! Maud was truly an amazing person – a master of disguise, equally able to pass herself off as a man, or a fortune teller, or a parlour maid, and skilled with a revolver, able to face down blackmailers. There are photographs of Maud – at work in her office and in a number of disguises. And it was not just in Britain – she worked all over the place including  New York, Cape Town, Brazil, and Jakarta. 

But what makes the book so good, and what kept me glued to the pages are the details of how Susannah Stapleton went about her research, included within the main narrative of her book. I haven’t come across this before – usually  an author lists the sources used at the end – and there is just such a list (a very long and comprehensive list) at the end of this book.  I was more intrigued by Stapleton’s own methods of research into finding out about Maud than I was by Maud herself.

 I also loved all the details of the changing society in which Maud lived – the role of women in the struggle for equality, details of the living and working conditions and of the crimes that real life private detectives investigated – divorces, missing persons, adultery and theft.

It more than lived up to my expectations, but I am still wondering did she really do what she said she did? Whatever the truth she was a complex woman and a very private one at that.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea

Historical fiction at its best

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’ 

Katharina fortitude

Sanderling Books|23 July 2019|print length 446 pages|e-book review copy|5*

My thoughts:

I loved this book; beautifully written and meticulously researched Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea it presents a vivid portrait of Katharina von Bora from the beginning of her married  life with Martin Luther in 1525 to her death in 1552. It is the conclusion to Katharina: Deliverance, which covered the early years of her life from 1505 up to her wedding to Luther.

They both work well as standalone novels but I think reading both gives a fully rounded picture of her life. Margaret Skea is a skilful storyteller and seamlessly blends historical fact into her fiction. She is an award winning author both for her short stories and her historical novels – and Katharina: Deliverance was Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society Novel Award 2018.

Just as in Katharina: Deliverance, I was transported back in time and place to Reformation Germany, and in particular to Wittenberg in Saxony, experiencing the social, cultural and political situation. It’s also an intensely personal novel and I feel I really came to know Katharina and Martin very well. They lived through turbulent times, suffering outbreaks of plague, political and religious conflict as well as coping with the death of two of their children. Their marriage, initially one of convenience, opposed by some of his friends and fellow reformers, eventually became full of their love for each other and Martin came to value Katharina’s candid opinions and the support she gave him.

I felt immense admiration for Katharina, for her strength of character, resilience and courageous spirit. She gave birth to six children, whilst looking after Martin, who was often ill and suffered from depression. And in addition she also managed the daily life of the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, often under financial difficulties because of Martin’s generosity towards others. She catered for the students and all the visitors and boarders, as well as working in the garden, with its vegetable beds and herb garden, the brewhouse, stable and piggery. Luther continued to be involved in religious controversy, whilst lecturing students, and holding his Table Talk sessions discussing a variety of topics ranging from theology and politics to diseases and their remedies.  He also translated the Bible into German, composed hymns, catechisms and treatises. 

I have often written in my reviews that I am not a fan of novels written in the present tense, but I had no issues with it in either of these books about Katharina and I think it fits the story perfectly. I was totally immersed in the story, enhanced by the richly descriptive writing, which made it compulsively readable for me.

In her Author’s Note Margaret Skea states that her book, based on a research trip in Saxony, ‘is a work of fiction, and though based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation’. There is a list of the main characters, a glossary of German terms and a map showing Saxony and Surroundings to help with the locations. It is a remarkable story, full of drama, centred on Katharina, a strong and courageous woman who never gave up no matter the difficulties that life with Luther brought her. I loved it.

With many thanks to Margaret Skea for sending me an advance review copy.

 

Dolly by Susan Hill

Dolly

Profile Books|October 2012|153 pages|Library book|4*

Dolly: A Ghost Story is a small book – in size and in length and I read it very quickly. Although I think it is a supernatural tale I don’t think it is a ghost story. But it does have an uneasy foreboding and melancholic atmosphere, mainly set in a mysterious isolated country house in the Fens.

There is not much to say about it really. It’s the story of two children, cousins Edward and Leonora who spend a summer with their Aunt Kestrel at her house, Iyot Lock, a large decaying house in the Fens. Edward tries to get on with Leonora, an insufferably mean and spiteful child. Expecting a birthday present of a doll from her aunt, she has a tantrum when she is given a baby doll totally unlike the doll she wanted and breaks its head. From that point on strange things begin to happen with disastrous consequences.

It is well written and I relished the descriptive writing of the landscape, that oppressive feeling that the sky above is falling in on you that I’ve experienced in that area. The tension is there from the start and it gradually builds as events unfold and the storm clouds gather.  There are hints of evil as well as spite and malice, in Leonora and what happens to the doll and the cousins is where the supernatural element comes in. 

But I think the plot is too formulaic and I could easily foretell what was going to happen. To say what it reminded me of would be too much of a spoiler. The ending, as so often in short stories and novellas comes too quickly, but nevertheless I did enjoy reading it. There is a certain satisfaction in predicting what would happen and being right as opposed to getting to the end and expecting more. It made a pleasurable change as it filled a gap between longer and more demanding books.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics)

I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of short stories, often finding them disappointing. So I’m glad to say that I enjoyed this anthology edited by Martin Edwards: Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries. Some stories, of course, are better than others.

Blood on the tracks

There are fifteen railway themed stories in the collection and an introduction on classic railway mysteries by Martin Edwards. He has also prefaced each story with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I read the collection slowly over a few months, which I find is the best way to approach a short story collection.

Train travel provides several scenarios for a mystery – the restriction of space on trains, with or without a corridor, means that there are a limited number of suspects and they can also provide an ideal place for a ‘locked room’ crime or an ‘impossible crime’ story. This collection also includes a couple of crimes with a supernatural element.

The mysteries are presented in roughly chronological order from 1898 up to  the 1950s. The ones I enjoyed the most are by R Austin Freeman, Roy Vickers, Dorothy L Sayers, F Tennyson Jesse and Freeman Crofts Willis.

  1. The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring an un-named sleuth, ‘a well-known criminal investigator’, about a man shot through his heart on the London to Manchester train. He had no ticket on him but had six valuable gold watches in his possession. This was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1898.
  2. The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L T Meade and Robert Eustace. This was also first published in 1898 in which a signalman is found dead at the mouth of the tunnel. When another man dies in in the same place it looks as though something very strange is the cause of their deaths.
  3. How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin. In this story Lady Detective Dora Myrl investigates the theft of £5,000 in gold and notes from a locked railway carriage.
  4. The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway (1901) by Baroness Orczy, featuring the Old Man in the Corner, an ‘armchair detective’ as he sits in a teashop and tells journalist Polly Burton the solution to the murder of a young woman on the Underground, whilst he fiddles with a piece of string.
  5. The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L Whitechurch featuring the railway detective Thorpe Hazell. He investigates the kidnapping of the son of a millionaire.
  6. The Case of Oscar Brodski by R Austin Freeman, an ‘inverted’ detective story, in which the reader knows everything, whereas the detective knows nothing and it all hinges on the significance of trivial details, including fragments of glass, biscuit crumbs, a piece of string and threads of fabric.
  7. The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers – an underground mystery about switching off the station lamps after the last train had gone down the line, with a rather spooky supernatural ending.
  8. The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah, in a steam engine crashes into a light train, killing twenty seven people and injuring forty plus. The cause of the accident is a mix up with the signals. I think this is one of the less successful stories for me.
  9. The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face (1928) by Dorothy L Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story), . The body of a man is found on a lonely beach, his face slashed, and with no means of identification. Wimsey’s discussion of the crime with his fellow passengers as they travel into London, helps D I Winterbottom to solve the mystery – a most intriguing story.
  10. The Railway Carriage by F Tennyson Jesse (1931) – this is possibly my favourite story in the collection. It’s a supernatural mystery in which Solange Fontaine, a female sleuth with a ‘feeling for evil’ features meets two passengers on a train. Both the elderly woman, dressed in shabby black and the insignificant-looking man in a grey felt hat seem to be locked in their own thoughts and she feels very ill at ease. Then the train crashes. An excellent story.
  11. Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper (1933), the creator of ‘Bulldog’ Drummond – an example of an ‘impossible crime’ in which the clue of a raw egg supplies the solution to the murder – I wasn’t convinced by this story.
  12. The Level Crossing by Freeman Crofts Willis ( 1933) in which a man is found dead, lying near an unmanned railway crossing. A mystery that shows the effects of unforeseen circumstances even on a well planned murder.
  13. The Adventure of the First-class Carriage by Ronald Knox (1947) a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with an ‘impossible crime’ scenario.
  14. Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes, a John Appleby mystery in which he investigates a murder in a railway carriage on trestles, not on wheels, as it is part of a film set.
  15. The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert (1950s). I found this rather confusing as the police follow a woman passing on stolen goods as she uses the Underground to give them the slip. I think this is possibly the one story in the collection that failed to hold my interest.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (3 July 2018) in association with the British Library
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1464209693
  • ISBN-13: 978-1464209697
  • My rating: 3*