Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book: Men Between the Wars

Why yes, they do dig up a body.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1987 Perennial Library edition, Harper & Row, originally published 1928

Provenance: A long plane flight is, even under the best circumstances, a trial. Having re-enjoyed Murder Must Advertise, I brought along Unpleasantness along with some Nero Wolfe short stories on a recent trip to London, but the Nero Wolfe did not hold my attention nearly as well on the long passage over the Canadian Shield. On the flight back, I cracked open the Sayers, and then finished it up after my return when I was too exhausted to do anything else but have a lie down.

The Review: I've mentioned the Raymond Chandler/Dorothy Sayers split before, but I I think the American detective writer in Simple Art of Murder has missed his mark. He goes after Sayers and the rest of her British ilk for plots that have to work like clockwork, as dependable as the old-time British Rail time-tables, and stretch the incredulous. American detective fiction, of the Hammet/Chandler ilk, are heavy on accidental discoveries, mooks with guns, professional detectives, and babes with shady histories.

But there's another thing as well. The Chandler/Hammett branch of the genre is extremely light on protagonist background and motivation. Their leads are vessels that one can pour oneself into to. Sam Spade works as a the Hammett-described blonde devil and equally well as moivi-version Humphrey Bogart. The Thin Man describes the victim, not the detective. The Continental Op stories don't even give the detective a name. This isn't a universal trait of American Mysteries (Rex Stout comes immediately to mind, and Chandler probably would not approve either of Wolfe and Goodwin's eternal bro-mance, either), but it is a component part.

Sayers, instead, is writing stories of which the murder is a central but supporting component. It follows the tropes, but it also provides a doorway into what Sayers wants to explore. Murder Must Advertise is very much about modern business, promotion and the professional class. Gawdy Night takes us into a woman's college. And with the Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we are dealing with the plight of the postwar male - the effects of the Great War and the community of club life.

The Unpleasantness of the title is the death of old General Fentiman, found propped up in his favorite chair at the club on Remembrance Day (Veteran's day to us Yanks). Fentiman has two grandsons, the Colonel and the Major, both veterans of the Great War, who stand to get a piece of his inheritance. However, the same morning, the General's estranged sister pops off from pneumonia. She has a lot of money, which would go to the General if he was still alive (and therefore to the grandkids on HIS death) or to a distant relative if the General had predeceased her. So the initial mystery is - when did the General really die? Before or after his sister?

That is the (relatively bloodless) mystery that Lord Peter Wimsey is tasked with. And Sayers uses the case to wander through the wreckage of maleness in the wake of the war. There are those physically affected by the conflict  (mentions of "Tin-tummy" Challoner), those who seem unchanged (The bluff, hale Captain), and those who have been mentally and emotionally shattered (the Major, nerves wrecked). Sayers takes us into Major Fentemin's household, where his wife works and he feels worthless, and lashes out. Whimsey forgives Major Fentiman his faults, but I don't think Sayers does.

Wimsey himself served as an officer in the war, and it left him with a bellyfull of sadness and a strong sense of responsibility, both for the men who served and the cause of justice. He's not a hero of the hard-boiled type, balancing virtue with paycheck, but a dilettante pushing his way forward through a puzzle, trying to find the right response that fits both the facts and propriety.

The mystery unwinds with red herrings and secrets popping up, but it starts wrapping up with a good chunk of text still in the reader's right hand. So things don't wrap up as tightly as one would suspect at first blush. Instead an entirely new, related mystery evolves out of the first, with some of the same players, but some new characters that have been kept at the fringes for the initial part of the book. And again, male roles are examined in the expectations of the "modern" men and how they interact with their changed world.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club sits on one cliff of a great chasm between it and the Americanized detective story. Wimsey is has more personality that the hard-boiled cousins, and greater interaction as well, and Sayers digs in deeper as well, dealing with the challenges of men in society once the guns are silenced.

More later,