Clouds of Witness Themes
The contrast among Lady Mary's three suitors nicely illustrates an important theme in the book concerning the importance of human life. Her official fiance Denis Cathcart is a jaded illustration of the decadence of the old order. He is seeking a marriage of convenience and wishes to marry only in order to support his mistress in a better style. He is the victim, but as his past is unfolded through detective research, he becomes increasingly less sympathetic, so it is with some relief that readers learn Lady Mary had become disillusioned by his coldness and — finally frightened — had planned to elope with someone else on the very night of Cathcart's death. George Goyles, the alternative lover, turns out, however, to be even less sympathetic than Cathcart. He is a textbook Communist, spouting slogans about the rights of the people but evincing no human understanding of the feelings of real people. Cathcart is at least willing to kill himself for love, and if he is marrying Lady Mary without loving her, he is at least doing so without pretense. But Goyles claims to love Lady Mary. Yet the problem is not simply that he is a hypocrite. A more serious problem is that the best love he is capable of allows him to abandon his intended, leaving her to discover a grisly corpse at their appointed rendezvous. When he is tracked down he is blind enough to assume incorrectly that she has given him away. The man Lady Mary finally does marry (they become engaged in Strong Poison, 1930) is Inspector Charles Parker, her brother Peter's confidant and detective colleague. Parker has traditional middle-class values that neither Cathcart nor Goyles can appreciate, but his truly distinguishing characteristic is that he works — and takes his work seriously. He has a seriousness about life that gives him the right to make moral judgments that Goyles does not have and that Cathcart does not recognize the need for. The two rejected lovers are shown as taking too cheap a view of life. They are willing to kill (Goyles takes a shot at Lord Peter, and Cathcart is finally shown to have committed suicide), but only the traditional rules of law and religion can ever justify killing.
The fact that Cathcart is proved to have committed suicide allows this novel to end with the suggestion of the harmonious wholeness and justness of the existing fabric of society. There is, in fact, no murderer to be brought to justice. After the Duke is acquitted by the Lords, Grimthorpe does try to kill him, only to be punished by fate in the form of a passing taxi that runs him over as he tries to escape. This episode has the effect of liberating Mrs. Grimthorpe, the Duke's mistress, from bondage to her husband. She refuses the offer of financial help, and she also makes no emotional claim on the Duke. The decision of individual characters to act on their own is what keeps the social world stable.