When Lord Peter Wimsey comes down to the Bellona club to dine with an old friend he little expected to find the 90 year old General Fentiman sitting quietly by the fire in full rigor mortis. Nor, did he expect to be confronted with a case about which one of the General or his sister, Lady Dormer, predeceased the other. But, seeing that it was a matter of some half million pounds he was delighted to oblige old Mr. Murbles, the family solicitor.
It turns out that establishing Fentiman's time of death is going to be a major feat. No one, including his heirs, the staff of the Bellona Club and most of London seems to recall what the General was doing that morning, or when he showed up, opened his newspaper and promptly expired. Worse, what few facts that Wimsey can put together convince him that something was very, very wrong with Fentiman's timely ticking off. Suddenly this is no longer a case of friendly detection but a serious investigation into a murder.
'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club' was one of Dorothy Sayers' early smash hits. It shows off Wimsey's charming urbanity against the gemlike setting of his friends and cohorts, only striking serious chords when grim necessity rears its monocled head. Wimsey doesn't act quite as foolish as he was prone to in past novels, which makes him likeable as well as witty. The other regular characters have also acquired some extra depth that makes everyone a bit more believable. Everyone but the bit players, of course. Each of those is, as usual, a quick, delightful pastiche, one of Sayers greatest talents.
This is one of Sayers' most memorable books, and, despite a plot that is a little too transparent, is one of her most re-readable. The odd thing about a Sayers mystery story is how unimportant it is whether you know or can guess the murderer. 'Who' is less important than 'how' in these tales, and neither is as important as the balletic interaction of the players, most of whom you would like to find in your sitting room - it you had a sitting room large enough, that is.
This is also the first book that displays Wimsey's softer nature with the ladies. While Marjorie Phelps is not destined to become Lord Peter's great love, we see glints of the Peter to come. He shows a fair and attentive style without a hint of macho that will serve him well in his trials to come. I am tempted to say that, if you don't enjoy this book, there is no hope for you as a Sayers fan. That's not completely true, but ' The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club' is a completely representative Sayers effort and one of my perennial favorites.