The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
|Author||Dorothy L. Sayers|
|Series||Lord Peter Wimsey|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||Unnatural Death|
|Followed by||Strong Poison|
Ninety-year-old General Fentiman has been estranged for years from his sister, Lady Dormer. On the afternoon of 10 November, he is called to her deathbed for a reconciliation, and learns the terms of her will. If she dies first he will inherit a fortune, which his grandsons sorely need. But if he dies first, nearly all of the money will go to Ann Dorland, a distant relative of Lady Dormer's late husband. She is a young woman with artistic leanings who lives with Lady Dormer.
Lady Dormer dies at 10:37 AM the next day, which is 11 November—Armistice Day. That afternoon the General is found dead in his armchair at the club. This produces a hysterical outburst from his younger grandson, George Fentiman, a veteran of World War I still suffering from the effects of poison gas and shell shock. Due to the terms of Lady Dormer's will and the time of her death, it becomes necessary to establish the exact time of the General's death. Though the estate would provide amply for all three heirs, Ann Dorland refuses any compromise settlement. Wimsey is asked by his friend, Mr Murbles, the solicitor for the Fentiman family, to help solve the puzzle. Wimsey agrees, though he insists that he will pursue the exact truth, regardless of who benefits.
The General was seated by an open fire, so the temperature of the body is of no help. The rigor mortis was well established, indicating death much earlier than the discovery of the body, but one knee was already limp – unusual as rigour usually eases head and neck muscles first. Dr Penberthy, a former army surgeon and club member, who was the first to see the body, certified death by natural causes. He was the General's personal physician, and was treating him for a weak heart.
It would seem obvious that the General must have died sometime after arriving at the club on the morning of 11 November, since he was found later that day. But nobody saw him arrive. He went to the club at some point after visiting Lady Dormer the previous afternoon, but his whereabouts are unknown between those two events. His manservant says the General stayed out overnight, and that a certain Mr Oliver called to say that the General would spend the night with him. No one knows anything about Oliver, but the elder grandson, Robert Fentiman, says that he's seen him often at a popular Italian restaurant. Robert agrees to watch for Oliver, and Wimsey arranges for detectives to assist him.
Robert thinks he sights Oliver, and follows him halfway across England, but the man is not Oliver at all. Wimsey also turns up a few clues – there was a fresh tear in the General's trouser cuff and a scraping of paint on the side of his shoe. Wimsey locates the taxi driver who picked up the General at Lady Dormer's house, and another who took him to the Bellona Club. The General went to see Dr Penberthy in between. Then, en route to the club, he had the taxi pick up George Fentiman. The two men had a long and angry discussion in the back of the taxi, and then George got out.
Wimsey also inquires into the character of Ann Dorland, trying to learn why she won't compromise. He contacts his old friend, artist Marjorie Phelps, who is also a good friend of Ann Dorland. There is another sighting of Oliver, and this time Robert and the detectives follow him to Italy. Robert returns from Italy, and admits that Oliver does not exist.
Wimsey has figured out what happened. There was no memorial poppy on the General's suitcoat – impossible if he had been on the streets on Armistice Day. The General died at the club the evening before, shortly after seeing his sister. He had just told Robert the terms of Lady Dormer's will. A few minutes later, Robert found his grandfather dead in the club's library, apparently of natural causes. Piqued at losing the inheritance, he concealed the body overnight in the club's telephone booth behind an "Out of order" sign. (The General's cuff was torn by a nail inside the booth, and the paint was scraped from its floor. Also, the process broke the rigor mortis in one leg.) The next day, Robert moved the body to an armchair to be found later. He acted when all the other members had stepped outside for the two minutes' silence, observed on Armistice Day at 11 AM.
In the meantime, Wimsey has had the General exhumed and properly examined. The General was poisoned with an overdose of the heart medication digitalis.
Suspicion falls on Ann Dorland, who was among the last persons to see the General, and who has an obvious motive. When she suddenly agrees to compromise with the Fentimans, it only adds to the suspicion.
Then George Fentiman has a nervous breakdown. In an incoherent babble, he claims to have poisoned his grandfather, though this is clearly impossible.
Wimsey eventually meets Ann Dorland, who is miserable. But it is not guilt that distresses her, it is callous and humiliating treatment by her former lover – Dr Penberthy. They had been secretly engaged, and he had insisted she fight for the whole estate and not compromise. Then after the autopsy, he broke off with her, giving highly insulting reasons. Penberthy had eyes on Ann Dorland's expected inheritance. When General Fentiman saw him, he spoke of Lady Dormer's will, and Penberthy realised that if the General didn't die at once, Ann Dorland wouldn't collect. So he gave the General a deliberate overdose of digitalis, to be taken later when Penberthy was not in attendance.
He was present next day when the body was discovered, and so was able to certify a natural death, though Robert's intervention confused the time of death. When the poisoning was discovered, he panicked, and broke off with Ann Dorland – insulting her so that she would be too embarrassed to tell anyone. Wimsey confronts Penberthy and offers him the chance to behave like a gentleman. He cannot save himself, but he can exonerate Ann Dorland from suspicion. Penberthy writes a confession and shoots himself in the club library. In an epilogue, it is revealed that the three heirs have divided the estate equitably. In fact, Robert, a bluff soldier who expressed distaste for artistic and intellectual women, is now dating Ann Dorland.
Characters in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
- Lord Peter Wimsey – an aristocratic amateur detective, Bellona Club member
- Detective-Inspector Charles Parker – Wimsey's friend.
- Mervyn Bunter – Wimsey's manservant.
- Mr. Murbles – solicitor to the Wimsey and Fentiman families.
- General Fentiman (deceased) – an elderly retired soldier. Bellona Club member.
- Lady Dormer (deceased) – General Fentiman's wealthy widowed sister.
- Major Robert Fentiman – General Fentiman's older grandson. Bellona Club member.
- Captain George Fentiman – the General's younger grandson. Bellona Club member.
- Sheila Fentiman – George's harassed and hard-working wife.
- Ann Dorland – distant relative and companion of Lady Dormer.
- Dr Penberthy – an impecunious physician. Bellona Club member.
- Marjorie Phelps – an artist friend of Wimsey and also Ann Dorland.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was adapted for television in 1972, as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.
- "Shell Shock and the aftermath of the Great War: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers (1928)"
- Annotating Wimsey on "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club"