Clouds of Witness (1926) by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is the first book review by Daniel, who is joining me at the Special Collection for a work placement. Daniel is a second year English and History student, and thus perfectly placed to get involved with the collection. Welcome Daniel!

Review by Daniel G:

As the first book of the Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection I have read I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was definitely a case of ‘I want to get to the end’ rather than ‘I have to get to the end’.

The story itself, although almost predictable in parts, had a good number of twists and turns that kept me gripped until the end at which the biggest twist of all occurred! The protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, is both interesting and highly likable and this is reflected in the fact Sayers used him in fourteen volumes of novels and short stories. As a modern reader, it appeared at times that the mystery could have been solved quicker and with more ease by using methods which have become common place by detectives these days, such as accurate fingerprinting and forensic investigations, which may not have been around (or if they were, not in heavy use) at the time. Also it was hard to truly appreciate the greatness of Wimsey taking a flight to America to pursue the case, something that is taken for granted in modern times, but as was later noted, this was a huge journey for the time and is mentioned in all local newspapers within the novel.

I noted differences in the style of writing compared to usual books I have read. For example there are many occasions in the novel where heavy amounts of back-and-forth dialogue between numerous characters occurs and, at parts, the narrative becomes similar to a play in that the tags like “he said” or “he thought” are dropped to produce long conversations in which it can sometimes become difficult to keep track of who is saying what. This was a technique I had not come across much before and, after some research on http://www.sayers.org.uk, I found that Sayers was one of the first writers of her time to use such a technique. I became accustomed to this style while reading the novel and in parts thought it worked to good effect, such as when Wimsey interviews witnesses / suspects, and the during court case. This method provided a quickness to the speech which mirrored how the situation would have panned out in real life (or on screen) as the detective asks a series of quick-fire questions in an attempt to catch the suspect out.

Another technique I had not come across before was the use of epigraphs. These are short extracts from great works of literature such as Othello, King Richard II and Sherlock Holmes which appear at the beginning of each chapter and suggest at themes and/or events of the proceeding chapter. I enjoyed the use of these and thought they added an extra element to the book as some, such as “I think it was the cat” (Pg. 97), revealed key themes as well as providing extra mystery to the novel through its enigmatic meaning. Others helped to build the feel of the detective genre as Sayers quotes Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous detective in Literature. As a technique I had never seen before I valued the use of them and, when unsure of their origins, enjoyed researching background information to each one. Sometimes a simple Google search of the lines to find out where they came from sufficed, but other times I found myself picking up the entire text from which the epigraph was originally taken, such as Othello and Sherlock Holmes, to read the passage it was contained in and get a true feel for it. This helped, both my enjoyment and understanding of the chapter further and I became very fond of this, new to me, technique.

Overall, for my introduction into books from this collection it was a great starting point and has certainly got me interested in reading, not only more of Dorothy L. Sayers books, but also more from the whole collection and most importantly I am greatly looking forward to taking a further part in the project as a whole.

 Note: The website mentioned above for research, http://www.sayers.org.uk, is the official Dorothy L. Sayers society site containing a useful short biography of her life, a list of all her published works, links to further forums and discussions about her work and links to secondary material on her writings. The forum discussion from which I used the most information regarding Sayers’ style of writing was http://daringnovelist.blogspot.co.uk/p/what-is-novel-dare.html.

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3 thoughts on “Clouds of Witness (1926) by Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Welcome Daniel and what a super review! I *love* Dorothy L. Sayers’ books – “Gaudy Night” is one I could just pick up and read at any time and in any place. Wimsey is excellent and the books get a bit deeper and darker as they go on. I do hope you carry on and read the whole series!

    • Thank you for the kind words an recommendations! I would definitely like to read more of Sayers’ books and learn more about Wimsey as he was a superb character to read about! I notice there is a few more of the series in the Special Collection and will definitely look to reading these!

  2. Dorothy L Sayers is interesting as an author, because she appears to fall in love with her own creation. Wimsey is her ideal man, and I think she sees herself as Harriet Vane, whom he eventually marries. It is significant that after their marriage, Sayers stops writing about him. Her explanation was that she felt he could no longer function as a private detective with a wife. Dorothy Sayers was a highly intellectual person, one of the first women to receive an Oxford degree. Her literary style is perhaps a trifle old-fashioned these days, but that in itself creates the period atmosphere. Her research was tremendous, given that she was working in advertising for most of the time she was writing the Wimsey novels. In this respect, “The nine Tailors” is perhaps most outstanding; she took on the task of learning change-ringing to absorb the reader fully into the plot. I believe she was one of the first detective novelists to fully work out the settings of the action, so that there were no contradictions in the narrative. The books are best read in chronological order, especially the ones featuring Harriet Vane, so that the character development can be appreciated more fully.

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