A favourite Golden Age read of mine and very apt for Armistice Day.
The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, the eleventh of November, Armistice Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly.
A dinner is being given by Colonel Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey. As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.
The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade, yet some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.
The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.
All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.
An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.
The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.
No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.
The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!
Presumably a wry in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.
It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.
The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.
The Hodder edition includes an interesting, short forward by Simon Brett.
The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave wonderful ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.