Our book today is Dorothy Sayers’ steel-riveted 1928 Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which opens with a one-page summary of education, clubs, and coat-of-arms of its gentleman sleuth – which certainly sets the tone. Sayers’ aristocratic amateur finds himself in London’s Bellona Club on Armistice Day when the place is full of members – including ancient old General Fentiman, in his high-winged well-sprung easy chair by the fireside, who, as the novel opens, is found to be dead as the proverbial doornail. 21st century readers won’t have any experience with gentleman’s clubs or the fun humorists of the time had with the advanced age of such clubs’ members – and the likelihood that one of them could die without anybody noticing.
Since General Fentiman was ninety years old, his death would ordinarily thus be par for the course in a setting like the Bellona Club, but Sayers is a most genial complicator of plots, and the hallmark complication here is that tried-and-true spanner in the works: a tricky will. General Fentiman’s sister, Lady Dormer has made just such a will. If she dies before the General, he inherits her fortune; if he dies before her, the money goes to some distant flapper cousin. This is a matter of sharp necessity to Fentiman’s two feckless grandsons, both of whom could have used a great financial windfall, so when it becomes known that Lady Dormer died that same morning, the question of exactly how long General Fentiman sat there dead becomes vitally important enough for Peter Wimsey to be approached by the Fentiman family lawyer (since, as we’re comfortably told, it’s not really “a matter for the police”). Can His Lordship possibly lend a hand in determining exactly when old Fentiman died?
Wimsey takes to the task with the easygoing charm of a Bertie Wooster and commences to go “bargin’ around” asking questions of all the interested parties – or trying to, in the case of the flapper cousin, who sends down a curt response via her butler when Lord Peter presents his card:
“Miss Dorland presents her compliments to Lord Peter Wimsey, and regrets that she is not able to grant him an interview. If, as she supposes, Lord Peter has come to see her as the representative of Major and Captain Fentiman, Miss Dorland requests that he will address himself to Mr. Pritchard, solicitor, of Lincoln’s Inn, who is dealing, on her behalf, with all matters connected with the will of the late Lady Dormer.”
“Dear me,” said Wimsey to himself, “this looks almost like a snub. Very good for me, no doubt.”
It quickly turns out that despite his advanced state of decrepitude, old General Fentiman had a fairly active – and deeply mysterious – final day of his life, including an unexpected meeting with a shadowy figure named Oliver, who naturally attracts Lord Peter’s interest. That interest is frustrated by the oblivious grandson Robert Fentiman, who barely knows anything about the man despite having met him a few times. Lord Peter – at this point in the Sayers canon still a bachelor – vents his exasperation:
“Well, I mean, all this easy, uninquisitive way men have of makin’ casual acquaintances is very fine and admirable and all that – but look how inconvenient it is! Here you are. You admit you’ve met this bloke two or three times, and all you know about him is that he is tall and thin and retired into some unspecified suburb. A woman, with the same opportunities, would have found out his address and occupation, whether he was married, how many children he had, with their names and what they did for a living, what his favorite author was, what food he liked best, the name of his tailor, dentist, and bootmaker, when he knew your grandfather and what he thought of him – screeds of useful stuff!”
“So she would,” said Fentiman, with a grin. “That’s why I’ve never married.”
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is one of the most aristocratic of all Sayers’ aristocratic Peter Wimsey novels. Despite some excruciating walk-on parts from the lower classes, this book takes place almost exclusively in the rarefied world Peter Wimsey calls home. But it’s a mark – the high mark – of Sayers’ art that this makes no difference at all; the whole thing barrels along so readably that none of its countless absurdities slow you down for more than half a step. Wimsey is unsinkable, and it doesn’t take many pages of any of these novels for that fact to make you smile. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club has much less meat on its bones than much stronger works like Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night or the hilarious Murder Must Advertise, but in some ways that itself is a recommendation: some days, you want the fizz.