book review

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

My introduction to Dorothy Sayers was the dense but ingenious The Nine Tailors, a book I might not have the fortitude to finish nowadays. Although it presents a witty, entertaining detective and an absolutely brilliant murder weapon (maybe the best I’ve encountered), TNT also has an unbearably tedious account of campanology. I still don’t know how I got through it–probably Sayers’s reputation forced me to keep reading. Once I got past the beginning, I enjoyed it just fine.

It was the dread of encountering a similar ejaculation of boring minutia that had prevented me from making a second climb onto Mount Sayers. I am happy to report that The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is light on its feet with smart characters and (best of all) nearly 90% dialogue.

The Problem: General Fentiman is found dead of heart failure at the Bellona Club. The body is found slumped in a chair by our detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Due to Fentiman’s age, there is no suspicion of foul play. Only…well, it’s just that no one remembers him arriving at the club. A week later, Wimsey is hired by Fentiman’s two sons, George and Robert. It seems that (bear with me) Fentiman’s sister also died around the same time. Due to the nature of the two wills, the delicate matter of who died first is worth millions of pounds to the two sons. Wimsey’s job is to pinpoint the time of death, preferably to the very minute.

The Investigation: We spend most of the story following Wimsey (with one very good exception) as he charms his way to the truth. He’s quite similar to Vance, cultured but able to engage in sporting fisticuffs if need be. The brothers are on opposite ends of the bracket. George suffers from shell shock and must live off his wife’s salary, making him a prime suspect at various points in the novel. Wimsey needs to find out how much George knew about the peculiarities of the wills. Robert may be guilty of some serious evidence tampering. The reason why becomes terribly important as the investigation hits the midpoint. Fentiman’s doctor, Penberthy signed the death certificate, but noticed an irregularity about the stage of decomposition. Perhaps the old man died at another time and place. We’re treated to lots of early 1900’s science, but it’s boiled down to digestible concepts.

The Solution: This is not an impossible crime by any means, so there’s no grand reveal, but rather a slow, methodical march to the truth. My favorite chapter is the questioning of Ann Dorland, the dead sister’s companion and the key to the mystery. Her awful artwork ends up leading Wimsey to the correct plot. (Note to the ghost of Dorothy Sayers–You name the sister Dormer and her companion Dorland. They are often mentioned in the same paragraph. Do not come back to life and do this again. It’s maddening!) We end on a bittersweet note of honorable reckoning that I saw coming about four chapters too soon.

This is not a brilliant mystery by any means, but it’s guided with a firm hand and a clear understanding of character. The dialogue is witty and you’ll have a good time reading it. I’m not sure which Sayers to try next, so if anyone has a recommendation, I’m all ears.

8 thoughts on “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club”

  1. This was my introduction to Sayers, and while the first half is ingenious — and hides a magnificent clue right out in the open — goddamn, isn’t the second half turgid. And, worst of all, Wimsey only stumbles onto the answer because he overhears two people discussing the case in the pub, one of who is holding forth and happens to posit what Wimsey then simply realises is the right answer.

    It took me a long time to forgive that. Still not entire sure I have 🙂

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      1. You’re right that Sayers does a great job with communicating so much through speech. As much as I didn’t enjoy this, your post has made me think that it might finally be time to take on Have His Carcase…all 11,000 pages of it.

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  2. I particularly like Nine Red Herrings and Have His Carcase from Sayers’ opus, but it’s fair to point out that I seem to be in a minority in both cases (NRH is a lot shorter, so might be the best one to try next). You also might want to look at one of the collections of short stories, some of which feature her second-string sleuth, the cheerful wine salesman Monty Egg.

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  3. “Murder Must Advertise” is to me Sayers only successful mystery, really. TNT is also a good mystery, though much too long and with too boring digressions. The early novels (BV) are all readable, but all suffer from some Wimsey-itis. The later novels (AV) are both nigh on unreadable – I suppose the first two Vane novels are kind of all right, it’s just that they lead to the final two which is unforgiveable – and suffering from Wimsey-itis compounded with Vane-ty. Thus MMA almost by default becomes the Sayers novel to read.

    🙂

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