Clouds of Witness
|Author||Dorothy L. Sayers|
|Series||Lord Peter Wimsey|
|Publisher||T. Fisher Unwin|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
|LC Class||PR6037.A95 C5 1987|
|Preceded by||Whose Body?|
|Followed by||Unnatural Death|
It was adapted for television in 1972, as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.
After the events of Whose Body?, Lord Peter Wimsey goes on an extended holiday in Corsica. Returning to Paris, he receives the news that his sister Mary's fiancé, Captain Denis Cathcart, has been found shot dead outside the Wimseys' shooting lodge at Riddlesdale in Yorkshire. His brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, has been arrested for the murder. Cathcart was killed by a bullet from Denver's revolver, and Denver's only alibi is that he was out for a walk at the time Cathcart died. Gerald admits that he quarrelled with Cathcart earlier that night, having received a letter from a friend which told him that Cathcart had been in trouble in Paris for cheating at cards. Later that night, Mary went outside and found Gerald kneeling over Cathcart's body.
Peter and his close friend, Inspector Charles Parker, investigate the grounds, and find several tantalising clues: footprints belonging to a strange man, motorcycle tracks outside the grounds and a piece of jewellery, a lucky charm in the shape of a cat. They also agree that both Gerald and Mary are hiding something; Gerald stubbornly refuses to budge from his story that he was out for a walk, and Mary is faking a severe illness to avoid talking to anyone.
In the course of the following weeks, Peter investigates several false avenues. The man with the footprints turns out to be Mary's secret fiancé, Goyles, a radical Socialist agitator considered "an unsuitable match" by her family, who was meeting Mary to elope with her. She had been covering for him on the assumption that he killed Cathcart, but when Goyles is caught, he admits that he simply ran away in fear when he discovered the body. Furious and humiliated, Mary breaks off their engagement.
While investigating the surrounding countryside Peter meets a violent, homicidal farmer, Mr. Grimethorpe, with a stunningly beautiful wife. Grimethorpe seems a likely killer, but while investigating his alibi (and nearly being killed by stumbling into a bog pit), Peter confirms that Grimethorpe was elsewhere on the fatal night. However, he discovers Gerald's letter from his friend in Egypt wedged in the window of the Grimethorpes' bedroom, proving that Gerald was visiting Grimethorpe's wife. Gerald has refused to admit it, even to his family or his lawyers, being determined to shield his mistress even at the price of being wrongfully convicted of murder and going to the gallows. This chivalric defence only makes Gerald appear more stupid to his brother, given that he has left a letter with his name on it in Mrs. Grimethorpe's bedroom, making it virtually certain that she would have been discovered and murdered by her husband, had Peter not found the letter first.
Eventually, the jewelled cat leads Wimsey to Cathcart's mistress of many years, who had left him for an American millionaire. Wimsey travels to New York to find her, and makes a trans-Atlantic flight – at the time, a very risky adventure which makes the headlines in all British papers – so as to get back to London before Gerald's trial in the House of Lords ends. From her, Wimsey brings a letter that Cathcart wrote on the night of his death, after receiving her farewell letter. In it, Cathcart announces his intention to commit suicide. He took Gerald's revolver from the study, went out into the garden and shot himself, though he lived long enough to crawl back to the house.
This simple sequence of events has been cluttered up by a series of bizarre coincidences: Cathcart's mistress's farewell arriving on the same night that news of his cheating reaches Gerald; his suicide happening on the same night that Gerald planned to meet Mrs. Grimethorpe; and Gerald arriving back to stumble over the body just as Mary comes out for her rendezvous with Goyles. In his closing statement, Gerald's lawyer comments that, had Cathcart's death been the only event of that night, the truth would have been immediately obvious and unquestioned.
Gerald is acquitted. As he is leaving the House of Lords, Mr. Grimethorpe appears and shoots at him, then panics and flees, and is killed by a speeding car. Mrs. Grimethorpe, finally free of her husband, is not interested in continuing her affair with Gerald, and his gallant offer to help her falls flat.
In the final scene, Inspector Sugg, last seen in Whose Body?, is startled to find Wimsey, Parker, and Freddy Arbuthnot on the street after midnight, all drunk as lords. Apparently they have been celebrating the end of the case. Sugg assists them into cabs, then reflects, "Thank God there weren't no witnesses."
Literary significance and criticism
A copy of Clouds of Witness was one of the volumes modified by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in their adulterations of library books from the Islington and Hampstead libraries in the early 1960s.
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- Grimethorpe is not killed at the end. Instead, Bunter tackles him as he is trying to draw a gun at the end of the Duke's trial, and in the struggle, Grimethorpe receives a self-inflicted gunshot wound that incapacitates him in the hospital for several weeks. Peter gets Mrs. Grimethorpe and her daughter to safety by hiring her as a caretaker for his villa in Italy.
- Mary (Rachel Herbert) and Charles (Mark Eden) begin dating at the end of the episode. In a subsequent adaptation of Murder Must Advertise they are married and have at least two children, as in the book of that name.
- The book is moved from 1926 to 1928, which results in an anachronism – Lord Peter meets briefly with the US Ambassador in Buckingham Palace and talks with the King, but at that point the King was actually desperately ill and recuperating from a bout of septicaemia.
- At the time of writing, Transatlantic flight was just four years old, the risky domain of daring pioneering aviators, and passenger flights were still a distant dream. In fact, in the fictional universe of the Wimsey stories this makes Wimsey the first passenger to ever fly on a transatlantic flight. The first such passenger recorded in actual history was Charles Albert Levine in 1927.
- Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: the Biography of Joe Orton. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1980 ISBN 0-06-015796-8