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by Dorothy L. Sayers
New English Library, February 2004
252 pages
ISBN: 0450016307

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First, a terrifying confession: I had never read a Dorothy L Sayers novel until I picked up THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB. As a child I was stuck on Christie, and then moved straight to more contemporary writers without looking back. I had however recently listened to an abridged audio of an earlier book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, CLOUDS OF WITNESS, and wondered what the fuss was all about. I knew there were whole societies devoted to Ms Sayers, and was frightened by the prospect of writing a review of a foppish and unemotional sleuth which would show up how uneducated I really am. Well, I can give you my first impressions at least, and encouragement to try them yourself, in print, and unabridged.

The New English Library are republishing the whole series this year with a new Introduction by Elizabeth George, so it is an excellent opportunity to catch up.

Written in 1928, and set in London between the wars, the mystery in THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB centres on the death of the ancient General Fentiman at the club, which is bustling with Armistice Day reunions. He seems to have died reading his paper in his favoured chair, by the fire, and embarrassingly no-one is quite sure how long he has been there.

Lord Peter helps move the body and notices that one knee hangs loosely whilst the rest of it is still showing rigor mortis. It's odd, but nothing comes of the affair until a few days later when, following the publication of the General's will and other related events, the precise time of death needs to be determined. Lord Peter is asked to enquire discreetly into the case.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of the novel, was the portrayal of London Society in this period, and in particular the lack of comprehension of the old guard of the scale of horrors the Great War had inflicted on its surviving combatants. The camaraderie, compassion and loyalty of these recent warriors, haunted by memories of the battlefield, and some of them still suffering badly from shellshock, whilst trying to find their place in the world, left a lasting impression.

It was this compassion that redeemed Lord Peter for me. Initially I found his foppish and witty language a little difficult to get into, but as I read on, I came to enjoy this, whilst being struck by what a cold fish he seemed to be. His enquiries seemed to be just a clever diversion for him between gourmet meals. Even where friends were involved his emotions were very much under control, and I wondered if he even had them, or if they too were a casualty of war. There just had to be more to him than met the eye in this book alone. Suddenly the appeal of this series was banging me over the head and I was ready for some detection myself. I have a lot of catching up to do, and relish the prospect.

This edition also has a postscript which I believe was added in 1935 by 'Lord Peter's uncle' to detail the past, and bring his personal history up to date. I'm not sure what to make of this -- whilst it confirmed some of my suspicions about Peter's early life and enlightened me on others, giving me further encouragement to read more in the series, it felt as though it was telling me a little to much of what is to come, and perhaps also a little too much of earlier cases for anyone who hasn't read them -- this being the fifth Lord Peter book. But it doesn't really matter; I'm a convert now.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, May 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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