[Miss Climpson, on the instructions of Lord Peter Wimsey, is trying to drum up an acquaintance with a home-care nurse]
Miss Climpson ordered another cup of coffee and a roll and butter. There was no window-table vacant, but she found one close to the orchestra from which she could survey the whole room. A fluttering dark-blue veil at the door made her heart beat, but it proved to belong to a lusty young person with two youngsters and a perambulator, and hope withdrew once more. By twelve o’clock, Miss Climpson decided that she had drawn blank at the “Central [cafe].”…
At half-past three she sallied out again, to indulge in an orgy of teas. This time she included the Lyons and the fourth tea-shop, beginning at the far end of the town and working her way back to the ’bus-stop. It was while she was struggling with her fifth meal, in the window of “Ye Cosye Corner,” that a hurrying figure on the pavement caught her eye. The winter evening had closed in, and the street-lights were not very brilliant, but she distinctly saw a stoutish middle-aged nurse in a black veil and grey cloak pass along on the nearer pavement. By craning her neck, she could see her make a brisk spurt, scramble on the ’bus at the corner and disappear in the direction of the “Fisherman’s Arms.”
“How vexatious!” said Miss Climpson, as the vehicle disappeared. “I must have just missed her somewhere. Or perhaps she was having tea in a private house. Well, I’m afraid this is a blank day. And I do feel so full of tea!”
commentary: This is my entry for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences – this month we are all writing about a 1930 book, and I am just getting in under the wire…
Miss Climpson’s mission is to inveigle her way into the house of an elderly woman, and find her will. To this end she is staying in a small town in the Lake District, and haunting the cafes in her attempts to find the nurse who looks after the old lady. It is an enthralling part of an excellent book, and one of my favourite sections in the whole of Sayers. Miss C will make the acquaintance of the nurse, and realize that spiritualism is the way to her heart. She will then stage a couple of fake séances up at the big house, with the old lady silently sleeping above. It is tremendous stuff, with all the details Sayers does so well.
The purpose of this elaborate operation is to prove the innocence of Harriet D Vane, who makes her first appearance in this book. Wimsey has fallen in love with her, and also believes her to be innocent of murder, and he throws all his resources at the miscarriage of justice. By chance (the least likely event in the book) Miss Climpson, as above, was on the jury at Harriet’s trial, and held out against a guilty verdict. In those days there was no room for a majority verdict, and a retrial is called. Lord Peter has a month to get new evidence.
It is a fascinating book, as we follow all his different searches and investigations. Given that Harriet is innocent, there isn’t a wide range of possibilities for the guilty party, but that doesn’t matter: the story is tense and exciting, with its grave disappointments (the incident of the white powder!) and its clear indication that Harriet is being judged as much for her unmarried relations as for anything else.
Recently some of us were suggesting which Agatha Christie book we could recommend to a new reader: it occurs to me that this would be the ideal book for someone wanting to try out Lord Peter Wimsey. It does not have the slight silliness of some of the earlier books, and has real, believable characters with dilemmas and ideas. Many of us really enjoy any appearances of Miss Climpson, and in this book there is a Miss Murchison too, who does a tense undercover job in a solicitor’s office, again beautifully described. To this end, she learns lock-picking from a retired burglar. There are also scenes of Bunter vamping the help at a suspect’s house: flirting with the cook and maids in a most satisfying way.
The book also contains a full account of how to make a jam omelette, though as I explained in a Guardian piece on food in books:
this happens in court, during a murder trial, with the unusual purpose of explaining that the dish could not have been poisoned. The cook’s technique is praised, and the appalling judge says ‘I advise you all to treat omelettes in the same way’. You could certainly make one from the description, though it doesn’t sound all that delicious.As a book of 1930, the moral judgements and the old boys’ network are key features. And Sayers always does such (convincing) details about characters’ lives that you feel there is sociological interest there.
More Dorothy L Sayers all over the blog - click on the label below.
Picture from the Library of Congress.