Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (originally published 1926).
Summary: Lord Peter is summoned to find out the truth concerning the death of Denis Cathcart, for which his brother Gerald is facing a murder trial before the peers of the realm.
Lord Peter Wimsey, just returned from a jaunt in France, is informed by his man Bunter that he might want to be off to Riddlesdale, the family home. It seems that his brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on the charge of murder. The facts are these. Peter’s sister is engaged to Captain Denis Cathcart and is visiting Lady Mary, his betrothed. Now Cathcart is dead of a gunshot wound from Gerald’s revolver, and Mary finds Gerald over the body on a garden path as she comes down at 3 a.m., saying she has heard a shot.
Earlier that evening, Gerald received a letter from an old friend accusing Cathcart of being a card sharp. This is just about the ultimate offense among gentlemen and so Gerald confronts Cathcart in what ends up to be an angry exchange of words. Cathcart, who was planning to ditch Lady Mary, storms off. Gerald tries to get to sleep but cannot and gets up about an hour later, goes out, apparently wanders for several hours, and claims that he was returning and finds the body. But his gun is found nearby, and the evidence is sufficiently damning for the police to arrest Gerald. And Gerald does nothing to help himself, remaining silent about his whereabouts that evening. It doesn’t look good for the Duke of Denver.
Enter Lord Peter, who believes from the start that his brother couldn’t possibly be capable of such an act. And it doesn’t add up. Cathcart is leaving Mary and so no further intervention is needed. Yet the case seems open and shut. But some things don’t add up. There are conflicting reports of when the shot was fired–11:40 p.m. and 3 a.m. There are size 10 footprints that do not belong to any of the party. The window to the den was pried, even though the door to the garden had been left open. There is a diamond broach of a cat left by the body, but the woman with Cathcart when it was purchased does not fit Mary’s description. And there is the unfriendly Grimethorpe, and his exceedingly attractive wife, who seem to know something important.
Parker heads off to Paris, and Lord Peter takes a perilous plane trip to America and back, tracking down the clues. The trial before the peers of England opens, and Lord Peter has not returned and a terrible winter storm lies in his flight path across the Atlantic. Will he make it in time (will he make it at all?) and will his evidence exonerate his brother and reveal how Cathcart died? I will leave that for you to discover.
This is only the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales. I felt Sayers was still developing her craft, but already we see the development of the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter, and Parker, and their relationships. The description of the trial by Gerald’s peers, other Lords of England, is fascinating. Already, this is good writing, and I commend reading this before later numbers because it only gets better!
[A note on editions. This book is now in public domain and is now available in very inexpensive digital versions, one of which I downloaded. There were passages missing (noted) apparently from a quickly scanned version. From other reviews, I gather the current print edition may not be better. Open Road generally releases high quality digital versions. This one includes an illustrated biography of Sayers with photographs from the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. Older print versions may also be found at second hand stores or online sellers.]