The Late Scholar ~ Jill Paton Walsh

The-Late-ScholarAs a rule I don’t approve when an established writer suddenly abandons their own creative world and appropriates that of an author sometime deceased and therefore unable to offer any resistance in the face of such an intrusion. However, there is one exception to my displeasure and that is the continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ world of Peter Wimsey by Jill Paton Walsh.  This may be because I love Wimsey and his wife, Harriet, so much that I am willing to put aside any scruples I feel to read more about their lives; it may be because I have loved Jill Paton Walsh’s writing since the time I discovered her in the first school library I took over, and would read her copy for the back of a sauce bottle; it may be because Sayers and Walsh display such similar warmth for their characters and their setting that it is truly hard to see the join.  Whatever the reason, when a new Wimsey is announced I am first in the queue for my copy.

The Late Scholar is Walsh’s fourth sortie into the lives of the now Duke and Duchess of Denver and is in someways rather different from the earlier three.  In writing the first, Thrones, Dominations, the author was responding to a request to complete a novel that Sayers had abandoned in 1936.  There was a first draft and a plot diagram from which to work and so the resulting novel was every bit as much Sayers’ work as it was Walsh’s.

A Presumption of Death was based on letters that Sayers wrote to the Spectator during the Second World War in which she detailed what the family were doing – so again Walsh was working with previously dictated material rather than producing anything original.  And, in The Attenbury Diamonds she explored a mystery that Peter had investigated early on in his career but which had never been written up.  In The Late Scholar, however, Walsh has, for the first time, struck out completely on her own and developed a mystery that has more to do with her personal experiences in Oxford than it has with any material left by Sayers.

The time is 1952 and much to his annoyance Peter discovers that along with his Dukedom he has inherited the role of Visitor to St Severin’s College. One of the duties that this entails is arbitrating in any dispute that the Fellows of the College are unable to resolve for themselves and so when the current batch of academics are deadlocked as to whether or not they should sell an ancient and possibly extremely important manuscript in order to raise the money to purchase a parcel of land it is to Peter they turn that the situation might be brought to a conclusion.

The irony is that the dispute is deadlocked only until such time as certain Fellows themselves really do turn up dead.  It’s a very effective way of ensuring your majority – bump off one of the opposition – until such time, of course, as the opposition should bump off one of yours.  And, as the fatalities mount it becomes apparent to Harriet and Peter that one thing links them all.  Each of the victims has met his death in a manner perfectly described in one of Harriet’s novels and therefore also in a manner that Peter has met before in real life.  Find Harriet’s greatest fan and they will almost certainly find the man behind the murders.

This isn’t the greatest mystery ever written, but it is a wonderful book to curl up with on a cold and rainy afternoon, especially if, like me, the idea of Oxford in the early weeks of Spring really appeals.  There is something about Harriet’s Oxford (and because of Gaudy Night for me it will always be Harriet and not Peter’s Oxford) that warms me from the inside out.  Even just the occasional references to Shrewsbury College and the chance to encounter again, however fleetingly, the members of its Senior Common Room are enough to make me yearn to pick up the earlier book and spend time with those erudite and humane women.  Before I’d got half way through this novel I’d looked out my copy of the other.

Something else I found interesting about Walsh’s book was the manner in which she continued to explore the developments in Harriet and Peter’s  relationship and the ramifications for the family of the changes in society after the Second World War.  I loved the moment when Harriet is forced to recognise that in Bredon, the Wimsey heir, she and Peter have given birth to precisely the son that Peter’s elder brother Gerald would have wanted and her almost instant acceptance of what that means in terms of his continuing education in a world where family tradition is no longer the ruling force it once was.  Peter has a harder time coming to terms with this but being the man he is he gets there eventually.

So, if you’re looking for a deep and hard hitting crime novel, this is not the book for you, but if you want a cosy afternoon spent the in company of an excellent host and hostess then you couldn’t do any better.  And if you find you like Walsh’s touch with the academic mystery you could do worse than to seek out the four Cambridge based novels that she wrote before turning her hand to the Sayer’s legacy, featuring College nurse, Imogen Quy.  I could well wish that she had taken that series further.

22 thoughts on “The Late Scholar ~ Jill Paton Walsh

    1. This will fit the bill exactly, Nathalie. Have you read Walsh’s early Wimsy novels? If not you might want to go back and start with those.

    1. Yes, some of the attempts really creak, don’t they? But Walsh seems to have seeped herself in Sayers work and has the voice just right.

  1. It seems to be becoming a much more common thing for current writers to take over old series. It works better sometimes than others – sounds like this one works well.

    1. Some of them are really poor, I know and a purest might not get on with Walsh’s novels, but for me this worked and was the right book at the sprightliest time, which also probably helps.

    1. Oh yes, Lisa. I would love that as well. In fact I was looking for something to re-read while I battle with the problems of a new medication and those would be perfect. Thanks for reminding me about them.

  2. I know what you mean about authors stepping into other writers’ worlds. All the hooha about William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks writing new James Bonds left me cold but it sounds as if Jill Payton Walsh has been a little more cautious, bedding herslf in so to speak.

    1. I have studiously avoided the Bond sequels, Susan. Although I have to be honest and admit that the original Flemings weren’t my first choice of reading either. I think Walsh has been very circumspect.

  3. I too roll my eyes when I find another author meddling with my favourites or riding the bandwagon of a book’s success by giving us a back story, or a prequel etc. So no, I will not be reading Death comes to Pemberley or the latest one I heard of – a below stairs version of P&P, called Longbourn. Humpf.

    1. No, I didn’t go down the Pemberley route either. In part because it was a P&P follow on but also because I was slightly disappointed with James’s last Dalgliesh novel and didn’t want the gloss of her earlier work tarnished any further in my memory.

  4. I am a big Sayers fan, but haven’t see these. I might have turned my nose up at them, but all of your recommendations are so spot on. Off to find them in the library, I hope.

    1. Well thanks for the compliment. Do read them in order, Marylou or you’ll find yourself at a loss as to why certain people hold certain ranks in the later volumes.

  5. Hi Ann! Sorry to hear that the new year hasn’t had that good a start for you. Have you any outcomes as yet? Somewhat inspired by your excellent and interesting blog I’ve recently started a website for my ‘Art’ and wondered if you’d like to take a look? I have tentatively started a blog page in it so do have a glance. Keep on turning the pages. Mary xxx Recent good Reads Isabel’s Skin – just strange! Lion Heart, Cartwright Justin – you must try this. Gravity of Birds & Tell the Wolves I’m Home – similar themes but both absolutely excellent! Bellman and Black – new Setterfield – disconcerting but compelling! Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2014 14:07:51 +0000 To:

    1. Thanks, Mary, it’s going to be a long process of trial and error I’m afraid, with the emphasis very much on the error at the moment. I love the website and will be visiting frequently. I didn’t know that you were an artist. How can I have known you all this time and not realised? I particularly like the drawing of the broken pots as I am leaning more and more towards drawings and prints at the moment and get into the print room at The Barber whenever I get the chance. As for the soft toys, you must come and meet The Bears who don’t wait until the evening to have a life of their own I can assure you. I wish you had been there to see the solicitor’s face when I insisted on writing them into my will!

      I’m interested that you enjoyed the Cartwright because the reviews I read were very mixed and so I hadn’t put it on the list. I might give it a second look now. I was one of the few who didn’t enjoy ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ but I do have a copy of the new Setterfield and will try and put my prejudices aside and read it. If you see her can you make sure that Audrey is reading Gordon Ferris who is superb and I’m sure she’d love him.

  6. I haven’t read all her Wimsey novels, but I’ve very much enjoyed the ones I have. I think Jill Paton Walsh is an unjustly overlooked stylist. The way she writes is as smooth as silk and as lucid as a freshwater stream. I loved her Cambridge detective novels featuring Imogen Quy (even though they were a bit faulty in their presentation of a college nurse!). Thank you for the heads up on this one – I’ll definitely be looking out for it.

    1. I love the Quy books as well, although they always seem to me to speak of a time earlier than the one she was actually writing about. I think the Wimsey books work so well in part because she is happier with the period they’re set in. Have you read Knowledge of Angels, the novel she had to self publish and which was then short listed for the Booker? If ever anything spoke an under appreciated writer it was that.

  7. Oooh, I didn’t even know these existed! Thanks for the review- I went out and bought this immediately. Love a cozy mystery (and Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vine).

    1. Do catch up on the others as well, Catie, or you may find it difficult to understand where life has taken Harriet and Peter at the beginning of this novel.

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