The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is my latest re-read of the month, adding a much-needed review to the Sayers’ pile, as I’ve not reviewed many of the Wimsey titles on the blog. As with my last Christie re-read, my memory of this one was pretty foggy, give or take a few points, though according to my good reads record, it seems to have been a title I very much enjoyed.

The book begins with Lord Peter Wimsey at the Bellona Club on Remembrance Day. Yet whilst waiting to go to an Armistice Day dinner, it is discovered that General Fentiman has died in his favoured chair by the fire; the doctor diagnosing heart failure. The General’s sister, Lady Dormer, is rung to pass on the news, but it is revealed that Lady Dormer, herself, died that very morning. Both seemingly natural deaths, so where’s the crime? Well it actually starts out as a legal problem, as depending on whether the General died before or after his sister, his grandsons and Miss Ann Dorland, Lady Dormer’s companion, will get startling different amounts of money. Lord Peter Wimsey is asked to investigate, to see if evidence can be found to pinpoint the General’s death more accurately. However, it is not long before a number of odd things crop up: peculiar rigor mortis, a mysterious Mr Oliver, who rang the night before to the General’s manservant to tell him his master was going to stay with him all night and there is that Sherlockian clue of the thing Lord Peter Wimsey expected to find on the body and did not. Yet there will be even more odd and startling clues and circumstances before the case is through.

Overall Thoughts

Whilst I’m not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I did the first time around, I still think it’s a story with many interesting features. First of all, there is the Remembrance Day theme and the way it is perceived by the characters who were soldiers in WW1. Of these characters, the ones which get the most page space to express their views are Captain George Fentiman and Wimsey, for whom the day gets on their nerves and Wimsey even refers to the holiday as ‘community hysterics.’ The book then goes on to showcase a number of individuals who still suffer from their war experiences such as those suffering from shell shock and long-term effects of being gassed. Financial difficulties are also another experience of veterans and Sayers focuses on this issue with George and his wife, the latter of which has had to become the bread winner for the pair. Consequently, George becomes frequently ratty and bitter towards his wife and whilst the narrative doesn’t condone the things he says about women, Sayers still allows a measure of sympathy into the text, revealing the self-esteem roots behind the comments.

This book is also interesting structurally, as it begins from a more unusual starting point, that of deciding which person died first. Shrewdly though, Sayers expands the case around the halfway point, as I don’t think that point alone would have kept the book going until the end. The halfway point is also a moment of confusion and of confounding preconceived ideas, as a number of new clues and incidents come to light. The first half of the case is the best clued and those who enjoy sleuths grappling with physical clues will find Wimsey’s exploits appealing. I’m not so sure the second half is as well-clued. The solution itself is perfectly fine, but part of me feels that Sayers boxed herself into quite a tight corner, so the final “proving” of the solution does seem to rest a little bit more on the culprit’s confession. Although this might not be my favourite outing for Lord Peter Wimsey, (I think the titles of the 30s are the best in my opinion), it’s still a good read on the whole, with plenty of sleuthing going on, against an engaging social backdrop.

Rating: 4/5

Calendar of Crime: November (5) Other November Holiday

9 comments

  1. This was always my favorite Wimsey so it is a shame to read it didn’t quite hold up on a repeat read. Based on what you say about the ending though I can certainly understand where you are coming from and I now wonder if I will feel similarly when I get to it again…

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    • I’m not sure whether my reduction in enjoyment is partially due to reading circumstances/ changes in reading preferences. I think also coming to the book from the point of having read all of the Wimsey novels, I can see where my preferences have shifted to different titles perhaps. Have you read any of the Harriet Vane novels yet?

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      • A long time ago. I have a suspicion that my love of this title was due to the shift in the type of mystery it is to fall, at least in part, on the question of the time of death. I thought that was amazingly novel when I first encountered the story. I also really loved the moment of resolution and that may have obscured issues with the way the thing is solved for me…

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  2. While I agree with most of your analysis, Kate, I must admit that I enjoyed this one a great deal over the course (over MANY years) of many repeat readings. I would have to agree, though, that the books of the 30s are better overall – my own favorite is still The Nine Tailors, which I know many other readers don’t like as well. Just realized that I first reviewed “Bellona” on my podcast more than a decade ago, and brought it back as one of my “From the Vault” choices in 2017, so I guess there’s something to be said for its staying power!

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  3. I am entirely foggy about this book, I read it so long ago and I remember nothing. I have been only marginally successful at rereading the Wimsey books but this is one I would like to try again. Someday.

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  4. Thanks for the review. I’ve only read one Sayers novel to date – “Nine Tailors”, which I found somewhat long. I feel like I should try out “Murder Must Advertise” – but again the page count feels overwhelming. 😅 Has Sayers written a short but brilliant novel?

    By the way, the third Ovidia Yu novel featuring Su Ling has just been released… Just thought you might be keen to pick up “Paper Bark Tree Mystery”. 😊

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  5. Just like Aidan, Bellona Club used to be my favorite Winsey novel, but hardly anyone shared my enthusiasm at the time. So glad to know I wasn’t the only one who liked it. But a reread is in order, because I remember very little of the plot.

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