Short works

Books : reviews

Dorothy L. Sayers.
Strong Poison.
NEL. 1930

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

Harriet Vane is on trial for poisoning her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter decides she is innocent, and sets out to prove it by finding the real murderer. He also decides he wants to marry Harriet, but has less success.

Dorothy L. Sayers.
Have His Carcase.
NEL. 1932

rating : 2 : great stuff

Harriet Vane discovers a fresh corpse in the middle of a deserted beach.

Dorothy L. Sayers.
Gaudy Night.
NEL. 1935

rating : 1.5 : unmissable

Harriet Vane retreats to her Oxford college to do some research, but the dons and students are being plagued by a Poison Pen. She calls in Lord Peter when things start to get violent.

Dorothy L. Sayers.
Busman's Honeymoon.
NEL. 1937

rating : 1.5 : unmissable

Harriet and Lord Peter finally get married, but discover a corpse in their honeymoon cottage.

Dorothy L. Sayers.
Striding Folly.
NEL. 1972

rating : 3.5 : worth reading


Striding Folly. 1939
Of chess, murder, and a strange dream
The Haunted Policeman. 1939
The birth of Peter and Harriet's first child, and a distressed policeman
Talboys. 1972
(written in 1942) A story of stolen peaches, set around 1942

Dorothy L. Sayers, Jill Paton Walsh.
Thrones, Dominations.
NEL. 1998

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 October 1998

Dorothy Sayers started on her fifth Wimsey/Vane novel in the late 1930s, but never finished it. When the partial manuscript and notes came to light recently -- precisely how much material there was is not clear -- detective novelist Jill Paton Walsh was given the opportunity to finish it off.

This must have been a rather daunting opportunity: she ran the risk of having all the good bits attributed to Sayers, and any bad bits to herself. As an avid Wimsey/Vane fan who would give her eye teeth for the chance to read a new Sayers original, I did start reading this with some trepidation. But my fears were allayed: there are no obvious joins, the 1930s tone is just right, the well-known characters keep in character, and no new characters obtrude. Although the story gets off to a slow start establishing the background, once the body turns up, about a third of the way through, things soon settle down into the combination of detection and relationships that we know and love. There are various threads twining through the story: the detection itself, Harriet adapting to her new married life and status, the contrast of the Wimseys' and the Harwells' marriages, Harriet's own new detective novel, and the death of the old King (hence setting it firmly in 1936). Harriet and Peter discussing her new book and the differences between such fiction and the 'real' detection in which they are engaged gives opportunity for some interesting meta-commentary on detective fiction.

I don't think it is quite as good a detective novel as the others: I spotted the killer very early on, and I never spotted the culprit so soon in the previous books. (Then again, it is over twenty years since I have read a Sayers for the first time, so maybe the change is in me?) Also, it doesn't seem to me to have quite the depth or originality as the other Wimsey/Vane books -- but if Jill Paton Walsh doesn't exhibit her literary erudition as much as Sayers did, that's okay by me, as most if it went over my non-literary head anyway. There are a lot of references to incidents in those earlier books as well, as if to emphasise the legitimacy of this work. But despite these minor carpings, this is a good book: these are continuations of the same characters, and we get to see more of their lives, to see Peter and Harriet adapting to married life without compromising their integrity.

The only near rival to the Peter-Harriet books I've every read for "the sheer pleasure of hearing [people] talk piffle" are the mystery novels of Sarah Caudwell. Of course LMB doesn't do badly at all in this respect...

-- D. Barrington, rec.arts.sf.written 1999

Yes. I have often wished that Caudwell, instead of Jill Paton Walsh, had been chosen to write the continuation of Thrones, Dominations. (Heck, I have even oftener wished that Caudwell would release a new novel.)
Walsh doesn't seem to grasp the concept of reticence, far less that of banter.

-- Betsy Perry, rec.arts.sf.written 1999

So I can say this book isn't quite as good as the originals, and yet still say without contradiction that it is definitely worth reading. Jill Paton Walsh should be congratulated for doing such a fine job.

Jill Paton Walsh, Dorothy L. Sayers.
A Presumption of Death.
NEL. 2002

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 14 June 2003

During the early years of WWII, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote The Wimsey Papers, which appeared in the Spectator. Jill Paton Walsh has used these as the springboard for this new Wimsey/Vane novel: extracts of some appear in the book, and details in others are used to set the scene.

This is set in 1940, with Peter off on some dangerous secret intelligence mission, and Harriet at Talboys, with her own children, and their cousins. Inevitably, a murder occurs, and Superintendent Kirk enlists Harriet's help to solve it. Much of the book is about the day-to-day problems caused by the war, and the more serious horrors of people being killed, and of waiting for news about loved ones. The murder mystery is almost incidental.

This doesn't work so well for me as the previous "joint" effort. The detective plot is again a bit shaky (the clues are laid on with a trowel in places), and there are again those rather heavy-handed references to the earlier works. This time, though, it's not compensated for by sufficient character interaction: Peter doesn't turn up until about two thirds through. Partly that's due to the theme of the book: loved ones separated by circumstances of war -- yet as the complex relationship between Peter and Harriet is the main reason I read these books, it loses something for me. There are some interesting moments, however. (A particularly good piece is where Harriet is musing that one reason she wouldn't marry Peter was because of his money, but that she didn't get long to enjoy its benefits.) And it does quite well evoke the feeling of the early war years. Certainly the snippets of Sayers' own writing, in the form of those Spectator letters, work well.

Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Wimsey Papers.
Spectator. 1939

  1. November 17, 1939, p. 672.
  2. November 24, 1939, p. 736.
  3. December 1, 1939, p. 770.
  4. December 8, 1939, p. 809.
  5. December 15, 1939, p. 859.
  6. December 22, 1939, p. 894.
  7. December 29, 1939, p. 925. (About the Graf Spee)
  8. January 5, 1940, p. 8.
  9. January 12, 1940, p. 38.
  10. January 19, 1940, p. 70.
  11. January 26, 1940, p. 104.
xxx. The Wimsey Papers were a series of letters, diary entries, essays, and so forth written by members of the Wimsey family and their associates right at the beginning of World War Two. They were published in a magazine called The Spectator and so far as I know, have never been reprinted, which is a damn shame.

They are very topical, of course, and deal with the blackout and Lord Haw-Haw and the Graf Spee. Perhaps that's why they have never been reprinted. They would have to be brought out in a heavily annotated edition. I wish somebody would.

Number XI is headed "Miss Sayers' articles will in future appear not as a weekly series, but at less regular intervals", but in fact she never did any more.

Extracts from the private diary of Lord Peter Wimsey, somewhere abroad.

The mere knowledge that other attitudes are possible is a safeguard against insularity of thought, and the politician with no language but his own can never really hope to solve international problems--worse, he can never really understand what the problem is, or even that there is a problem at all. That was the value of the classical education--nothing to do with whether Latin fits you to be a successful pill-merchant or engineer--the value of the double mind. If a diplomatist is not double-tongued he will almost certainly appear double-faced; not thorugh treachery but through ignorance. I would have no man eligible for Parliament that could not think in two languages.

Like the gentleman in the carol, I have seen a wonder sight--the Catholic padre and the refugee Lutheran minster having a drink together and discussing, in very bad Latin, the persecution of the Orthodox Church in Russia. I have seldom heard so much religious toleration or so many false quantities.

-- Dorothy J. Heydt, October 2000
[This information excerpted from several posts, about languages, and Latin]