It’s not often that a writer can successfully pick up and continue a series but Jill Paton Walsh’s mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are a triumph.
In our book group we read a lot of different kinds of crime fiction, from mysteries to thrillers and from the very latest to the classics. During the coronavirus lockdown I’ve been re-reading the books on my shelves, including my small collection of Classic Crime by the late, great Dorothy L Sayers, and the modern sequels written by Jill Paton Walsh.
The authors and the Dramatis Personae
Dorothy L. Sayers is recognised as one of the great crime writers of the 20th Century and wrote a series of novels that featured her noble sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote short stories, a few standalone books and, later in life, poetry, essays, reviews and translations. Although she’s almost solely remembered for her detective fiction, she herself felt her crowning achievement was her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an aristocrat, not the heir to the dukedom, but the second son. He comes home from the trenches of World War I deeply shellshocked and is slowly brought back to a resemblance of normal life by his batman-turned-manservant, Bunter, and by his involvement in solving mysteries.
Along the way, in Book 6 of the series (Strong Poison), he meets Harriet Vane who is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey finds the real culprit and falls in love with Vane, although it’s not until Book 13 (Busman’s Honeymoon) that they eventually marry.
Sayers abandoned Wimsey in 1936, leaving just a few draft chapters of a fourteenth book. And until her death in 1957 she never returned to him, other than writing a few snippets of fictional letters which were published in various short story collections in 1940/41.
Then, in the mid-1990s the Sayers’ estate approached Jill Paton Walsh and asked her to continue the series. An eminent author in her own right (mostly known for writing children’s fiction) she only started to write for adults later on. Her novel A Knowledge of Angels was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize.
Taking the baton
The unfinished Wimsey/Vane novel that Dorothy L. Sayers left behind is called Thrones, Dominations. Completed by Paton Walsh and published in 1998 it is so cleverly written that it’s almost impossible to tell where Sayers ends and Paton Walsh starts.
The story is typical Sayers. Two newly married couples, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and Laurence Harwood and his wife Rosamund, encounter each other. One relationship is a healthy one of equals; the other is toxic. Rosamund Harwood is an unpleasant woman and a sexual tease, always toying with her husband. Not surprisingly things go wrong and she ends up dead. Wimsey and his wife get involved and solve the case, although not until another young woman has also been killed.
This is a good book, very much in the ‘Classic Crime’ vein. Towards the end a few things happen that are more Paton Walsh than Sayers, but it’s still very much a Sayers-like story – a convoluted and absorbing murder mystery. In this book, too, Wimsey is portrayed as much more human and approachable than in the earlier books.
Paton Walsh’s second Wimsey/Vane book, A Presumption of Death, was published in 2002. It’s set in 1940 in the rural Hertfordshire village where the Wimsey family has their second home, and the pair solve a couple of rather gruesome murders. This time we encounter racy land-girls, rationing, daring young RAF fliers and German spies. The story is, perhaps, more Paton Walsh than Sayers, but it’s still recognisable as a Sayers book.
Two more books followed. The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) recounts a 30-year old case of Wimsey’s of a very convoluted jewel theft and its 1950 conclusion. It’s rather laborious but worth reading, and although the story is pretty preposterous it’s entertaining nonetheless. The Late Scholar (2013) involves a number of pretty horrible murders at a fictional Oxford college – another convoluted plot and a lot more violent than the original Sayers books.
A satisfactory conclusion
Although these two last books leave you in no doubt that they’re not written by Sayers, they are still entertaining early post-war crime stories and I’ve enjoyed all four books. It’s nice to see Wimsey’s story reach a satisfactory conclusion and the books are well written. The mysteries are in the classic crime style – convoluted, rather unlikely and neatly tied up at the end. (No modern ‘noir’ here!) If, like me, you are a fan of Dorothy L Sayers you’ll like these books. Why not give them a try? I rate them 3 ½ to 4 stars.
Review by: Freyja