Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness is a 1926 mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the second in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Clouds of Witness
First edition
AuthorDorothy L. Sayers
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesLord Peter Wimsey
GenreMystery novel
PublisherT. Fisher Unwin[1]
Publication date
Media typePrint
823/.912 19
LC ClassPR6037.A95 C5 1987
Preceded byWhose Body? 
Followed byUnnatural Death 

It was adapted for television in 1972, as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.


Lord Peter Wimsey's brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken a shooting lodge at Riddlesdale in Yorkshire. At 3 o'clock one morning, Captain Denis Cathcart, the fiancé of Wimsey's sister Lady Mary, is found shot dead just outside the conservatory. Mary, trying to leave the house at 3 am for some unexplained reason, finds Denver kneeling over Cathcart's body. Suspicion falls on Denver, as the lethal bullet came from his revolver and he admits having quarrelled with Cathcart earlier, after receiving a letter (which he says has been lost) informing him that Cathcart had been caught cheating at cards. He maintains that he came across the body after returning from a walk on the moors, but will say no more.

Wimsey arrives to investigate, along with his friend Inspector Charles Parker, who will find himself becoming increasingly attracted to Lady Mary throughout the novel. They find a series of unidentified footprints and a discarded jewel in the form of a cat. It is clear that both Denver and Mary are hiding something: Denver refuses to budge from his story that he was simply out for a walk, while Mary is faking illness to avoid talking to anyone.

Wimsey investigates several false leads. The footprints turn out to be those of Mary's undisclosed real fiancé, Goyles, a socialist agitator considered 'an unsuitable match' by her family. He had secretly entered the grounds for a pre-arranged rendezvous at 3 am, when the couple had intended to elope. Mary assumed that he was the killer and has been covering for him, but when she learns that he fled in terror after discovering the body, she breaks off their engagement in disgust at his cowardice.

Wimsey's investigations lead him to a violent local farmer, Grimethorpe, with a stunningly beautiful wife. Wimsey finds the lost letter that was sent to Denver wedged in the window of the Grimethorpes' bedroom, proving that Denver had been visiting the wife on the night of Cathcart's death. This is what he has refused to admit, being determined to shield his mistress even at the price of being wrongfully convicted of murder.

Eventually, the jewelled cat leads Wimsey to Cathcart's mistress of many years, who had left him for an American millionaire. Wimsey travels to New York to find her, makes a daring and dangerous transatlantic flight back to London, and arrives just in time to present his evidence at Denver's trial in the House of Lords. Wimsey brings a letter that Cathcart wrote to his mistress on the night of his death, after receiving her letter announcing that she was leaving him. In it, Cathcart announces his intention to commit suicide. After sending his letter, Cathcart took Denver's revolver from the study and went out into the garden to shoot himself. This would have been immediately obvious, if not for the coincidence of Denver coming home from his rendezvous with Mrs. Grimethorpe, just in time to stumble over the body, at the same time Mary emerged from the house for her rendezvous with Goyles.

Denver is acquitted. As he is leaving the House of Lords, Grimethorpe appears, shoots at him, flees, and is run over and killed by a passing taxi. Mrs Grimethorpe, finally free of her husband, declares that she has no interest in continuing her affair with Denver. In the final scene of the book, Inspector Sugg finds Wimsey, Parker, and a friend on the street after midnight, hopelessly drunk, celebrating the end of the case. Sugg assists them into cabs, and reflects, "Thank Gawd there weren't no witnesses".

Literary significance and criticism

In his 2017 overview of the classic crime genre, Martin Edwards suggests that Clouds of Witness is the work of a novelist learning her craft, but that it displays the storytelling qualities that soon made Sayers famous. While this early portrayal of Wimsey verges on a caricature, Sayers sought to characterise him in greater depth in later novels. Edwards notes that in this novel Wimsey is portrayed not only as a great detective but also as a man of action, and he quotes part of the defence counsel's speech to the House of Lords, explaining Wimsey's transatlantic dash to attend the trial:[2]

"My lords, at this moment this all-important witness is cleaving the air high above the wide Atlantic. In this wintry weather he is braving a peril which would appal any heart but his own and that of the world-famous aviator whose help he has enlisted, so that no moment may be lost in freeing his noble brother from this terrible charge. My lords, the barometer is falling".[3]

This fictional flight took place in 1926, a year before Charles Lindbergh achieved the same feat in reality[4] (although Alcock and Brown, flying together, had crossed the Atlantic non-stop in 1919).

A copy of Clouds of Witness was one of the volumes modified by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in their adulterations of library books from the Islington and Hampstead libraries in the early 1960s.[5]


In 1972 the novel was the subject of a BBC TV mini-series starring Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter.[6]


  1. "British Library Item details". Retrieved 19 December 2017.
  2. Edwards, Martin (2017). The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. London: The British Library. pp. 52–54. ISBN 978 0 7123 5696 1.
  3. Sayers, Dorothy L (1935). Clouds of Witness (Revised and corrected ed.). London: Gollancz. p. 171. Retrieved 19 December 2017.
  4. Mann, Jessica (1981). "6: Dorothy L Sayers". Deadlier Than The Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing. ISBN 0-7153-7877-5.
  5. Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: the Biography of Joe Orton. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1980 ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  6. "Clouds of Witness". IMDb. Retrieved 19 December 2017.
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