Here’s another detective novel paperback which seems to drastically misunderstand the story it contains. Or has it? After my previous post about Dorothy Sayers paperback which didn’t bear any resemblance to what she had written, I was ferreting around in my old copies, and found this 1962 Clouds of Witness. [Beware of reading past the cover if you want to avoid spoilers.]
On reflection, I think this is both an remarkably unsuitable cover, but also an extraordinary piece of literary criticism. We seem to have a man running across the moors with a revolver, whilst some terrible cat-shaped beast, which may or may not be of this world, menaces him from the mists. It’s rather more John Buchan than it is Dorothy Sayers. Certainly I don’t remember the bit in this book when Wimsey fought the dreaded Langthorpe Leopard armed only with his officer’s side-arm and that slightly cinched-in tweed.
There is, of course, a cat in this novel. It is mysterious and elusive and may hold the key to everything. But it is not a panther of the moors. It is a jewelled good-luck charm which the dead man bought for a lady, and which was found near his body. It is the subject of an extensive search in the jewellery shops of Paris, rather than being the adversary in a murky struggle.
From that aspect, this cover seems to be avoiding actual misrepresentation, but putting its elements together in such a way as to definitely give a false impression. It’s not so much that the plot is wrong, but that the book looks like an adventure story, and most of the novel is actually taken up with conversations at a country house and in flats in London and Paris.
That said, the cover is also a superb interpretation of the book. If some of the most striking kinds of literary criticism often involve taking familiar elements from a text, and showing how they combine in patterns which one had not seen before, then this is a cracking example. Because there is a moor in the novel, and there is a mysterious cat, and there is, as hinted at by the tagline, a family doom.
Susan Rowland points out in From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell that Clouds of Witness is, in some sense, a rewriting of The Hound of he Baskervilles. [Spoiler warning for that novel too!] If that seems a rather strong way of putting it, then the novel is certainly engaging with tropes which entered the detective fiction canon through Conan Doyle’s novel.
After all, Clouds involves a great mire, into which Wimsey nearly sinks. “Peter’s Pot” can be read as an echo of the Great Grimpen Mire, and one which maps the horror of the trenches which Wimsey survived onto the Victorian landscape of Baskerville. This scene always struck me as a little out of place, as it didn’t seem to fit with the pacing or the development of the plot, but for a psychoanalytic critic like Rowland it makes perfect sense. The image of the lethal bog is reworked in a way which channels more recent social anxieties and traumas into the fictional shape of a canonical novel.
Admittedly Wimsey isn’t out hunting for a cursed hellcat which kills his family – but a cat is the heraldic animal of the Wimseys. Their arms are “Sable, 3 mice courant, argent; crest a domestic cat couched as to spring, proper” and their motto reads with aristocratic arrogance “As my Whimsy takes me.” This is irrelevant: when the threads of the plot are revealed, it becomes clear that Wimsey’s brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been having an affair with the wife of one of the local farmers.
When Wimsey first meets her, there is an extraordinary (and somewhat distasteful) rhapsody in his mind:
Medusa was beautiful, says the tale, and so was this woman; a broad white forehead under massed, dusky hair black eyes glowing under straight brows, a wide, passionate mouth – a shape so wonderful that even in that strenuous moment sixteen generations of feudal privilege stirred in Lord Peter’s blood. His hands closed over hers instinctively, but she pulled herself hurriedly away and shrank back.
What can easily be missed, and gives both the distasteful edge and a crucial clue, is that Wimsey’s attraction involves “feudal privilege” which “stirred in Lord Peter’s blood”. The relationship later discovered between Gerald and Mrs. Grimethorpe is stressed as one between the aristocrat and a local beauty.
In other words, the Cat of the Wimseys actually is a parallel to the Hound of the Baskervilles. The mystery of Clouds of Witness reveals a story of aristocratic sexual misbehaviour (even potentially exploitation) which echoes the story of Hugo Baskerville’s assault of village girls from which the legend of the hound originates. It is less dramatic, less violent, and less culpable, but it is definitely there.
When Peter tracks around the Duke’s shooting lodge examining footprints, he is investigating the House of Wimsey in more than one sense. Gothic is fond of merging physical and psychological spaces, seen in everything from Northanger Abbey to The Fall of the House of Usher. He is delving into the secrets of his own lineage, and what it has produced. The reader is encouraged to suspect one kind of aristocratic “decadence” in the dilletante Communism of his sister, but it turns out that another and more traditional form of aristocratic disorder is hiding in his family.
It doesn’t solve the case, of course, but it is a fascinating rewriting of the Gothic elements in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Where the Great Grimpen Mire kills Stapleton after it turns out he has inherited too precisely the Baskerville lineage, including its taste for violence against women, Peter Wimsey sets off to Grimethorpe’s farm in search of clues, and struggles not to be lethally engulfed by a similar morass, only to find that Mrs. Grimethorpe reveals a hereditary strain in his own “blood” in both senses. I found this paperback cover hilarious when I first saw it. I’m now sure it’s a magnificent piece of literary criticism.