Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness
Clouds of Witness  
Clouds witness.JPG
Author(s) Dorothy L. Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre(s) Mystery
Publisher Harcourt
Publication date June 1926
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
ISBN 0-06-080835-7
OCLC Number 14717530
Dewey Decimal 823/.912 19
LC Classification PR6037.A95 C5 1987
Preceded by Whose Body?
Followed by Unnatural Death

Clouds of Witness is a 1926 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the second in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

It was adapted for television in 1972, as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.


Plot introduction

The fiancé of Lord Peter's sister, Lady Mary Wimsey, is found dead outside the conservatory of the family's shooting lodge in Yorkshire. Peter and Mary's elder brother, the Duke of Denver, is charged with wilful murder and put on trial in the House of Lords.

Explanation of the novel's title

The novel's title alludes to Hebrews 12:1: "we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses", as well as to G. K. Chesterton's short story "The Man in the Passage", where this reference to the Bible hints to the literary motif of mirrors and reflections, symbolizing the difficulties of human perception. In solving the mystery, Lord Peter's problem is the opposite of the usual case: rather than having too few clues to go on, there are too many, and Peter pursues several avenues that turn out to be false before hitting on what really happened.

Plot summary

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 tantalizing 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 that Gerald was visiting Grimethorpe's wife. Gerald has refused to admit it, even to his family or his lawyers.

Eventually, the jewelled cat leads Wimsey to Cathcart's mistress of many years, who left him for an American millionaire. Wimsey travels to New York to find her, and makes a harrowing trans-Atlantic flight back to reach 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. Hence the "cloud of witnesses". In his closing statement, Gerald's lawyer comments ironically 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.

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."


Loyalty to another person is a major theme in the book. Duke Gerald, Peter's brother, refuses to tell about where he had been in the night, in order to protect Mrs. Grimethorpe. He risks being hanged for a murder he did not commit rather than betray her. For her part, Mrs. Grimethorpe is willing to come forward and save him by providing an alibi, taking a considerable risk of being murdered by her rabidly jealous husband (it very nearly happens). Mary, believing Goyles to be the murderer, tries to shield him by formally making a false confession to having killed Cathcart, which, had the police believed it, might have led to her being charged with murder.

In marked contradiction with these three cases, Goyles exhibits a clear disloyalty and cowardice in having fled when finding Cathcart's body and completely abandoning Mary, with whom he intended to elope. Goyles' bad character might reflect Sayers' unfavourable opinion of radical Socialists, evident where "The Soviet Club" is described. (However, Socialists are here satirized and ridiculed, rather than being demonized as for example in Agatha Christie's "The Secret Adversary", published in the previous year).


This book marks the start of Charles and Mary's interest in each other, though it is several more years before they marry. In an early part of the book, Parker is seen as becoming deeply depressed when finding evidence which seems to indicate that Mary was involved in the murder or shielding the murderer, from which the reader gradually understands that he is in love with her. Parker considers this love to be hopeless, given the great disparity in their social status (a Duke's daughter and a policeman of working-class origin) as he blurts out to Wimsey. However, Wimsey, though quite astonished by Parker's interest in his sister, assures him that after Mary narrowly avoided both marrying a card-sharp and eloping with a radical Socialist agitator, her family would welcome "even a God-fearing plumber, not to speak of a respectable police officer". By the end of the book, Mary, though friendly to Charles, is still far from reciprocating his ardent love.

In one passage Wimsey himself admits to having been smitten by Cathcart's former mistress during their short encounter in New York, though wisely not trying to do anything about it.

Literary and historical references

  • There are several references to Manon Lescaut the tragic romance novel. Cathcart, an Englishman raised in France, is highly romantic in his attitudes. Like the hero of Manon, Cathcart was passionately in love with his mistress, and went to desperate lengths to continue paying for her extravagant lifestyle. His suicide note contains a quote from the book: "Je suis fou du douleur" ("I am mad with misery").
  • In discussing whether Gerald actually comprehends that he could be condemned to death if he is found guilty of murder, Parker recounts the hanging of the English Peer Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, in 1760.

Literary significance and criticism

"... this is likely to be more highly esteemed on a second reading. His younger brother's brilliant exculpation of the duke gives rise to the famous remark, uttered in the House of Lords: 'Gentlemen, the barometer is falling.' Read it to find the context."[1][context?]

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.[1]

TV Adaptation

The novel was adapted as a television miniseries in 1972, starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Glyn Houston as Bunter. The adaptation is largely faithful to the book, with a few differences:

  • 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 a villa in Italy owned by his family.
  • 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.

Transatlantic Flight

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. Wimsey's decision to return from New York by plane rather than by boat is a sensational news item reported with banner headlines in the London papers, making the faithful Bunter deeply worried for his life. In fact, 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.



  1. ^ a b Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0747560145

See also

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