Short works

Books : reviews

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.

Jill Paton Walsh.
The Attenbury Emeralds.
Hodder. 2010

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 28 May 2011

Here Walsh writes her own Wimsey/Vane story from whole cloth. It's actually three mysteries in one: the original case that got Lord Peter into detecting, a rather slight later mystery involving the same family (both told as narratives by Lord Peter and Bunter to Harriet, and providing essential background), then the "present day" (1951) mystery that is the main plot.

For the most part, this is a reasonable detective novel, and we get to see Harriet and Peter's children as teenagers, and how much the world has changed after WWII. But it doesn't have the passion that the Sayers' tales have. Except for the traumatic incident near the end of the book (which moves the family story along), most of the character interactions are quite bland. Also, given the main subplot of the earlier Thrones, Dominations, I find it unbelievable that the analogous event that happened on 6 February 1952 is never even mentioned (the final letter in the book is dated 21 April 1952).

Jill Paton Walsh.
The Late Scholar.
Hodder. 2010

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 13 November 2014

Becoming the Duke and Duchess of Denver has not ended the detective partnership of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane…

When Peter discovers he has inherited the job of Visitor – that is, the ultimate regulator – of St Severing College, and the fellows appeal to him to solve a dispute, he and Harriet set off happily to spend some time in Oxford, the city of their engagement and wedding.

But a quarrel about whether to sell an ancient manuscript turns out to be both bitter and lethal. Several of the fellows of St Severing die unexpectedly and the causes of death bear an uncanny resemblance to the murder methods in Peter Wimsey’s past cases – and Harriet Vane’s detective novels.

Peter and Harriet, or, to give them their current titles, the Duke and Duchess of Denver, travel back to Oxford. This time, it’s to St. Severing College, where Peter has inherited the job of Visitor, and has been asked to settle a dispute causing division within the College.

There are many little links and references put in to their earlier Oxford adventure, Gaudy Night. Some of them just don’t ring true. For example, when Harriet visits some of her old friends in Shrewsbury College, she is asked how St. George is doing, and she has to explain. But surely, given they know Peter is now Duke, yet they knew St. George was previously heir to the title, they must realise what that means?

However, the real problem with all the little references is they feel forced. They aren’t just background, but plunked down determinedly. Rather than providing a depth of history, they seem to scream, “Notice! This really is a Peter and Harriet novel!”

And it’s worse that that. The murders that start happening seem to be based on Peter’s old cases, and Harriet’s books. This level of self reference might have worked well, if made sufficiently complex, but here falls flat: not enough is made of them.

All in all, these “later Wimseys” try hard, but don’t match the brilliance of the originals.