Monday, August 18, 2014

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was the fourth of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers has a huge reputation among people with a cursory knowledge of crime fiction. Such people are inclined to believe that detective fiction between the wars was overwhelmingly dominated by women, and they are inclined to overrate the importance of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The early Lord Peter Wimsey stories are quite effective pieces of detective fiction. Sayers however was ambitious to be seen as a writer of what would today be described as literary fiction (the sort of fiction that is admired by academics and shunned by readers). These ambitions would bear fruit in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night, a novel that excites academics very much indeed. 

Sayers would also introduce the character of Harriet Vane, Oxford graduate and aspiring writer of crime fiction. Harriet Vane was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy on the part of her creator and she would come to dominate the later Lord Peter Wimsey novels. It could be argued that Sayers’ literary aspirations were a major reason for her abandonment of detective fiction in the late 1930s.

In 1928 when The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was published the ghastly Harriet Vane had not yet made her appearance. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a relatively straightforward detective story, and a good one. There is some emphasis on psychological motivations, and even more particularly on the psychological wounds left by the war. One of the main suspects is a man who has never recovered from shell-shock, and Wimsey himself had been a victim of shell-shock. The major emphasis though is on the sort of puzzle plot that so delights fans of the detective fiction of the golden age.

The setup is quite wonderful, with the discovery that the aged General Fentiman who has been dozing in his favourite armchair at his club is not in fact dozing at all. He is stone dead. And has been for some considerable time. There is no way of knowing just how long  the general has been dead, a point which does not seem very important at first but will later became absolutely crucial.

On the very day that General Fentiman passes way his sister Felicity also goes to her eternal reward. The general and his sister have been estranged for many years, since she made a marriage that attracted the very strong disapproval of her family. Felicity had married a button manufacturer who became a very rich man. Her husband and her child are long deceased and Felicity has disposed of her very large fortune in a rather curious will. As a result of this ill-considered testamentary document it becomes vital to know whether the brother or the sister died first. Somehow the time of the general’s death will have to be established, and that is the task facing Lord Peter Wimsey.

Lord Peter’s investigations will turn up some unexpected and unwelcome evidence, evidence that points to murder.

The puzzle plot is cleverly worked out. The case at times becomes somewhat bizarre and even a little surreal, but it’s all highly entertaining.

Lord Peter Wimsey is a delightful character. Or at least he was at this stage before the ghastly Harriet Vane appeared on the scene. He’s a bit like Bertie Wooster if you can imagine Bertie Wooster hiding a brilliant mind behind his ridiculous mannerisms. Wimsey has mannerisms in great quantity, perhaps too great for the liking of some readers. I find him charming but I can understand those who find him to be rather excessive.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

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