Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jill Paton Walsh’s “The Late Scholar”

From 1923 to 1937, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of mystery novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, son of the Duke and Duchess of Denver. Lord Peter always seemed something of the quintessential English aristocrat, except one with a penchant for getting himself involved in murders and other nefarious situations.

Dorothy Sayers
Sayers was more than a mystery writer; she wrote plays, essays, literary criticism and poetry. She translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. And her writings on faith and Christianity so reflected Anglican  teaching that the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity (which she declined).

But it is for Lord Peter Wimsey that she’s best known today. The Lord Peter mysteries are still read, helped along over the years by television series. And there was one Lord Peter manuscript left unfinished by Sayers. In 1999, mystery and fiction writer Jill Paton Walsh stepped in and completed it, the title publishing as Thrones, Dominations in1999.

Walsh wrote two more Lord Peter stories (giving Lord Peter’s love interest and eventual wife Harriet Vane close to equal billing). A Presumption of Death was published in 2002, and The Attenbury Emeralds in 2011.

Now we have The Late Scholar. It is 1953, and Lord Peter discovers that he is the official “Visitor” at St. Severin’s College at Oxford, thanks to a generous donation made by an ancestor in the 1700s. And the Visitor is being asked to come to Oxford to break a college deadlock that has everything to do with tradition versus academic survival. The issue at hand is whether to sell an Anglo-Saxon copy of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, possibly annotated by King Alfred, so the college can buy a piece of land ripe for development, or hold on to what is the most prized possession of its library.

The vote by St. Severin’s fellows is split 50-50. The warden (head of college) who is supposed to break ties, had sided with keeping the manuscript, that is, until he disappeared. And then fellows start dying, in ways strongly suggestive of the plots of Harriet Vane’s murder mysteries. Threads are discovered leading to a savage five-year-old literary review in the Times Literary Supplement, a researcher’s suicide years before, and a beautiful and frightened woman living in an isolated house.

Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter (followed by Harriet) is on the scene, and the murders continue.

The Late Scholar is grand fun (fun in the sense of engaging murder mysteries). Walsh is faithful to the spirit of Sayers and her detective. No, it’s not exactly as Sayers might have written the story, but it’s close enough to be recognizable as a Lord Peter Wimsey story. And with deaths in organ lofts, attacks with ceremonial swords, and a murder via skylight, Walsh continues the Lord Peter Wimsey rather swashbuckling tradition of private detection.

Oh, and there’s Bunter, too, Lord Peter’s chauffeur, butler, cook and general factotum.

Yes, it’s great fun.

Photograph: A 1931 Daimler 4-seater; Lord Peter Wimsey owned a 1927 model (among others).

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I've enjoyed Ms. Walsh's other Lord Peter books,and I'm looking forward to reading this one. Thanks, Glynn, for bringing it to my attention.