There is a question in my mind regarding this book. It is listed as #5 in Sayers’s famous detective series about Peter Wimsey, an amateur sleuth. But my copy of the book states its year of publication as 1921, which would make it #1 in the series. The quality of this novel seems to support such assessment – it’s not very high. Nonetheless, it’s a solid mystery novel and it raises some interesting moral questions.
In the beginning of this novel, Peter is asked not to investigate a crime but to ascertain the exact time of death of an old member of the Bellona Club. The man was ninety and seemed to die peacefully in his sleep in his favorite chair at the Club. His elderly sister died at approximately the same time, but depending on who pre-deceased whom, a huge amount of money in the sister’s will would go to different heirs.
Peter starts the investigation, but it takes him to unexpected places. A crime has been committed after all, but what crime, who did it, and why? As the investigation proceeds, Peter is forced to suspect people he would rather not find guilty, including his army buddy George. Torn between his need to discover the truth and his compassion, he even gets into a spat with his friend, the police detective Parker.
In the end, Peter is much more concerned about establishing who is innocent and protecting them than finding who is guilty. Peter’s advice to the guilty party is not what we would consider wise or even decent, although it might’ve complied with the notion of honor that was an atavism from a hundred years before. Altogether, a disappointing denouement.
The characterization in this novel is also not the best. Peter talks a lot, but his thought process is not always open to the reader, and the author never describes her hero at all. If you read this novel before reading any other in the series, you wouldn’t know how Peter looks or what his family is like. The other characters are also pretty sketchy, and the timing of the novel is vague, although it’s obviously happening sometime after the WWI. The entire tale seems more like a chapter in Peter’s life than an independent book. I guess it’s not #1 in the series after all, but then why does it list the year of publication the earliest of all other Peter Wimsey novels? Is it a typo, I wonder?
I read all Peter Wimsey novels years ago and loved Peter then. I also liked the author’s approach to a mystery story. It’s all about an intelligent detective. Peter doesn’t shoot guns or engage in car chases. He asks questions and looks for clues, chats with everyone and applies logic and psychology to his solutions. He doesn’t subject himself to unnecessary danger or tumble into stupid escapades. The suspense is cerebral rather than physical, a treat for the brain. It’s my favorite type of a mystery story and it’s extremely rare nowadays. So I decided to reread the whole series. Perhaps I started with the wrong book. I enjoyed the mystery nevertheless, but Peter still eludes me. On to the next book.