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by Dorothy L. Sayers
New English Library, February 2004
308 pages
ISBN: 0450001806

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I think the word is palimpsest -- a manuscript on which imperfectly erased sections of previous writings show through in some areas. Reading this new edition of CLOUDS OF WITNESS is looking at a palimpsest for me.

I first read CLOUDS OF WITNESS in the 1960s and in the 1970s I saw Ian Carmichael play Lord Peter Wimsey -- he did it well but I felt he was too cheerful and hail-fellow-well-met for the role. As the later books appeared on TV Ian Carmichael was replaced by Edward Petherbridge who was a perfect representation of the Lord Peter of the books in appearance and manner.

Does CLOUDS OF WITNESS stand up to further reading 78 years after its first publication? It showed a vanished world when I first read it so things have not changed. Dorothy Sayers still presents a fascinating picture of an exaggerated aristocratic world. She thought of an unusual situation -- an aristocrat accused of murder at a shooting box being tried by his peers in the House of Lords.

The trial scenes in the House of Lords are superb prefiguring their extensive use by other crime writers. I do not know whether it is the quality of her dialogue or watching the televised story but the words of Lord Peter seem to echo in my mind. His dated slang and airy manner certainly make him memorable.

Lord Peter and Inspector Parker carefully examine the scene of the crime for footsteps and other signs in standard old sleuth style. The idea of a witness simulating illness is a feasible one for a book set in any period but I doubt that a modern malingerer would take ipecacuanha! The Soviet Club in London visited by Lord Peter is another good period setting.

That Lord Peter and his friends and relatives certainly appear now as caricatures does not prevent us appreciating the wit and observational skills of Dorothy Sayers. The intellectual snobbery of printing of a whole letter in French (fortunately with a translation!) is noticeable. Peter's prejudiced comments on his sister's suitors as a 'Socialist Conchie' and a 'card-sharping dark horse' are suitable for the period. Shrewd phrases by Dorothy Sayers abound, for example, the Duchess is characterised as someone 'whose misfortune it was to become disagreeable when she was unhappy.' .

My conclusion is that Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers is still well worth reading or rereading today.

Reviewed by Jennifer S. Palmer, March 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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