Daily Archives: June 4, 2012

Vintage mysteries – When did the General die?

Review – The Unpleasantness at the
Bellona Club, by Dorothy Sayers

A keeper? Yes

Harrumph. The Bellona Club is no place for unseemly, inappropriate, unpleasant events, don’t yer know. It’s one of the stuffiest gentleman’s clubs in London, catering to retired army officers – mostly grumpy old men annoyed by a handful of younger fellows, veterans of the Great War (not yet called World War I) that ended less than ten years ago, mostly with varying degrees of what they call shell shock and we would call PTSD.

Anyway, old General Fentiman has spent nearly every day at the Bellona Club for years and years, and no one is very surprised when he’s found dead sitting in his favorite chair. After all, he’s about ninety years old, and his heart was bad. Still, it’s unpleasant to have a member’s corpse unnoticed for so long that the body is completely stiff except for one knee.

Even so, there wouldn’t have been much fuss if the General’s rich sister hadn’t made such an inconvenient will. If she dies first, the General inherits almost everything she has – and he’s left all his property to his two grandsons. But if she outlives him, nearly all her money goes to the sort-of-niece who lives with her, and the General’s grandsons will have to make do with the few thousand pounds he had to leave. She died the evening of November 10, and the General’s body was found during the Armistice day celebrations on November 11 – but when exactly did he die?

It’s not a police matter; there’s no crime here. (Or is there?) But Lord Peter Wimsey was on the spot when the General’s body was discovered, and he’s investigated a number of mysteries. If only he can be discreet, maybe he can clear things up without too much unpleasantness. The trouble is, once Lord Peter sticks his long nose into a situation, you never know where he’ll wind up.

There’s actually a lot to be suspicious about, it seems. General Fentiman’s grandson Robert says the General spent his last night visiting the mysterious Mr. Oliver, but who is he and where does he live? And why did Ann Dorland – who will inherit everything if she can prove that the General died before her “aunt” did – give up trying to paint and start studying chemistry and medicine? Will George Fentiman – Robert’s brother – run amuck yet again? Why did Dr. Penberthy fudge some of the details in his initial examination of the body? And will Lord Peter be kicked out of the Bellona for persistently bringing up unpleasantness?

In the end, justice and Lord Peter triumph, life improves for all the suspects who turn out to be innocent, and the murderer – yes, there’s a murderer, did you think there wouldn’t be? – gets what he, or she, deserves. On the way we get glimpses of a variety of colorful characters in London of the late 1920’s, while being hustled rapidly through a maze of things that might have happened but didn’t and things that seem unlikely to have happened but did. Not great literature (though better than average for a twenties mystery), but thoroughly entertaining.