First published: UK, Ernest Benn, 1928; US, Payson & Clarke, 1928
Thousands of enthusiastic readers of “Unnatural Death” will welcome a new thriller by the same author. In “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” her latest masterpiece, Miss Sayers has used the life of Clubland as the background to another brilliant story, in which Lord Peter Wimsey, that amusing amateur detective, appears again. The plot is complicated by there being two criminals and two crimes, turning upon a point of survivorship, and the skill with which the theme is worked out gives yet further evidence of the author’s exceptional ability to write of murder and mystery.
“Waiter, take that man out, he has been dead for two days!”
When George Fentiman repeated this old joke because he felt that it described the subdued and morgue-like atmosphere of the Bellona Club, he did not guess that his uncle, sitting quietly in a chair by the fire, had been dead for hours. How many hours? The disposition of half a million pounds depended upon the answer by the simple question, yet no one had seen him die. Lord Peter Wimsey was called in to find the answer. Yet each time he thought he had worked out the solution of the problem, a new difficulty arose. In his own words, “It looks easy enough, but it doesn’t come right in the middle, like sums in school when you’ve cribbed the answer from the back of the book.”
From one thrilling step to the next, Lord Peter works out the whole problem at last, logically, from the beginning, though in the process he uncovers fraud, crime and broken faith, unguessed at first. In his readers’ regard, Lord Peter Wimsey may well supplant his most famous compatriot prototype, Sherlock Holmes.
One of the early Sayers. Wimsey does a good job as detective, although his methods are very similar to those of Dr. Thorndyke, with his minute analysis of dust particles, the Marsh’s test for arsenic, hatred of modern art (c.f. The Stoneware Monkey et al.), Bunter taking photographs like Polton. Other Freeman themes include wills and inheritance (survivorship plays a large part), fraud, poisoning, rigor mortis and exhumations — Wimsey even comments that “that fellow Freeman is full of plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship, isn’t he?” and mention is made of the classic A Silent Witness. However, despite the brilliant evocation of the stodgy Bellona Club and the contrasting Bohemian London, and the good characterisation (Sayers manages to arouse interest in and sympathy with a character the reader does not meet until late in the book, and the poverty of George Fentiman and wife is obviously the ancestor of the Coles’ Poison in the Garden Suburb), the book is ultimately a disappointment: there are too many Fortunate mutterings about food, and the murder plot lacks the ingenuity one expects from Sayers, so that the second half of the story is an anti-climax.
Times Literary Supplement (16th August 1928):
The old story of the man who pointed in a club to his fellow-member and said to a waiter, “Take away that man; he’s been dead two days,” is here used, with considerable ingenuity, as the basis of a detective story. Miss Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, appears again in this story and finds something suspicious in the circumstances of this death of an old member in the Bellona Club. It is discovered that the inheritance of a great deal of money turns on the question of the time of this man’s death, and eventually a double crime is tracked down. The story is not sensational, but is told in that familiar straightforward way which seeks to make crime and punishment as much like a chess problem as possible. This being so the plot has to be examined with great strictness, and Miss Sayers’s book will bear this inspection, since the crime is introduced early in the book, and the detective is more, rather than less, intelligent than the normal reader of detective stories. In fact none of the rules of detective-story writing is broken, and the book may be recommended to those who take detective stories seriously.
Nation & Athenaeum (Raymond Mortimer, 28th July 1928, 50w):
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is not well written, and the jokes are for the most part not funny. The plot is fair.
Sat R (8th September 1928, 110w):
The special qualities of Miss Sayers’s writing are seen here at their best.
Bookm (C.M. Purdy, October 1928, 130w):
Miss Sayers’s mysteries are never intricate, but provide enjoyable enough reading,—amusing, that is, if you can enjoy Lord Peter, who is what Philo Vance might have been if he had been amusing.
Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 21st October 1928, 100w):
Even mystery haters may read this without an attack of pessimism, for it is civilised, entertaining, humorous and in every way deserving of a medal.