Monday, November 11, 2013

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers

In honor of Veteran's Day, I'm revisiting an old favorite, Dorothy L. Sayers' The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.* All eleven of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries were written between the wars, during the 1920s and 1930s, and World War I--or, as it was called then--The Great War hangs over all of her characters and the world in which they live, but in none of her other novels. Her detective, Peter Wimsey served as a major in the war, and in the army met the man who'd become his invaluable valet and assistant sleuth, Bunter. Also, Peter came back from the war with a very serious case of shellshock, and Sayers suggests that a desire to get his mind off the war, and a taste he got for intelligence work during the war gave him the taste for detection.  

However, in none of her other novels is the influence of the war felt as strongly as it is here. The crime centers on a stuffy West End Military club, the Bellona Club, of which Peter Wimsey is a (somewhat reluctant member). The victim of the crime and the perpetrator both have associations to the club, as well. The novel begins on Armistice Day, November 11th and the national moment of silence is a key clue to the elucidation of one part of the mystery. For me, November 11th is just a day I get off work, but in 1928 when this novel came out, the commemoration of the end of the war meant something tremendous to everyone. (The novel takes place on and in the weeks following the Armistice Day in 1927.)

Peter has his own shell shock and nervous breakdown pretty much in check nine years down the row, but the Bellona Club is littered with its victims, the club Secretary, Collier, who only has one arm; "Tin Tummy" Challoner, and Captain George Fentiman, who's still suffering from physical and psychological damage. Also, the dishonest actions committed by two other characters--Major Robert Fentiman and Doctor Penberthy--indicate something a lot bigger. These were basically decent men whose experiences in the war hardened them and made them less morally sensitive, allowing the one to attempt to perpetrate a fraud and the other to commit a murder for personal gain. Yes, this is an old school mystery with a murder over wills and inheritance and all the usual red herrings and a sparkling solution courtesy of our titled detective, but it's also a book about the impact a war had on a generation.

Another thing I love about this book is that books are very important in it. Peter surprises his best friend and frequent associate on murder cases, Scotland Yard Detective Charles Parker, but telling him he doesn't think Parker's favorite suspect is guilty because he looks at her bookshelf! And later in a conversation with her he scouts an interesting theory that people read to escape their own lives, and I'll close with this very interesting exchange: 

"And dull men in offices read detective stories. They wouldn't, if murder and police entered into their lives.”
“I don't know,” she said. “When Crippen and Le Neve were taken on the steamer, they were reading Edgar Wallace.” Her voice was losing its dull harshness; she sounded almost interested.
“Le Neve was reading it,” said Wimsey, “but I’ve never believed she knew about the murder. I think she was fighting desperately to know nothing about it — reading horrors, and persuading herself that nothing of that kind had happened, or could happen, to her. I think one might do that, don’t you?”
“I don't know,” said Ann Dorland. “Of course, a detective story keeps your brain occupied."

It certainly does! If you're looking for a good one this Veterans' Day, or Armistice Day, this is it.

*The title of this blog is, in fact, taken from a quotation from this novel. 

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