As 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.