Friday, 13 June 2014

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh


A Lord Peter Wimsey book based on the characters created by Dorothy L Sayers

published 2013




‘Let’s get some air,’ he said when they stepped out
into the quadrangle. It was a clear, moonlit night. Arm-in-arm, they walked out into Parks Road, and turned right. Up past Keble College, towards the University Parks…

They walked on as far as the footbridge, and leaned over the rail watching the multiplied moon dancing in the rocking surface of the river. 

‘I like you in a gown,’ said Peter, ‘as 
well as I like you in anything you wear.’ 

‘I have a slight unease about wearing one, just the same,’ said Harriet, as their return path offered them a prospect of Keble, its Fair Isle jersey of patterned brickwork softened to near invisibility, and its fine proportions clearer than in daylight.

‘Why so, Domina?’ he asked.

‘It’s an MA gown and I only took one degree,’ she said.


observations: This is a complex business. Between 1923 and 1937 Dorothy L Sayers wrote 11 murder stories with Lord Peter Wimsey as her sleuth. After that she did various other things – wrote, studied theology, translated Dante - ignoring Wimsey except for a few short stories and the beginnings of one more book. She died in 1957. In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh, a noted author in her own right, took Sayers’ beginning of the book Thrones, Dominations and completed it. She followed this up with A Presumption of Death – which takes as a starting-point some pieces Sayers wrote about the Wimsey family during the war. The Attenbury Emeralds was the next one: based on mention of this case in various Sayers books. The Late Scholar, the fourth in the series, is the first to have been produced out of nothing. But it takes Peter and Harriet to Oxford, to the imaginary St Severin’s College, and contains many nods to the original Gaudy Night, also set in the city.

There is also a strange conceit (slight spoiler): 



Any keen reader will notice as various attacks and deaths happen that the methods used are all reflected in Sayers’ earlier books. Of course Wimsey notices this, and describes them as coming from his old cases, then used by Harriet in her detective stories. This seems a bit convoluted and weird.

I love the original Wimsey books (despite having all kinds of unreasonable complaints about them – see entries here and here), and I was happy to go along with the new creations – JPW is a writer whose own books I very much liked. And a murder story set in an Oxford college, Peter and Harriet living into the 1950s – well, it’s hard to go wrong. But these books are giving diminishing returns. The dialogue and sex scenes with the happy couple (who are now the Duke and Duchess of Denver, for goodness sake) are excruciating, there isn’t the slightest questioning of the social order – surely even DLS would have baulked at Bunter’s uncomfortable role in the new world? Miss Hillyard’s name is mis-spelt, and bizarrely there are several references to a traditional ploughman’s lunch – surely JPW knows that this was not something being sold in British pubs in the early 1950s? But she keeps drawing attention to it.

Two characters have the names Oundle and Outlander: I thought it would be significant that you could make one of these (very uncommon) names out of some of the letters of the other, but no.

It is also true that usually when another author takes over, there was an untimely death of someone who had been writing the books up to the last minute. This is very far from the case with LPW, and much as I always wished DLS had written more, it might be time to put this whole business to rest. And yet…. Wimsey completists will read it, as I did, just because.

The first picture shows Keble College’s brickwork, and is from Cornell University library: the second is a Fair Isle jersey from the free vintage knitting site I like so much.

Even more Sayers entries on the blog here and here. And here. And here.

14 comments:

  1. Not one for me TBH. I think my dad had a copy of Lapsing, but I didn't have any crossover between my reading and his.

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    1. Lapsing is a great book, particularly for people who were brought up as Catholics, but I hardly ever hear of anyone else who has read it, so it's nice to hear your Dad did. JPW is a good writer, I think I wish she had stuck to her own books....

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  2. Perhaps a pre-war setting would have been better. The characters are so much a product of the twenties and thirties, far more than, say, Poirot or Miss Marple.

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    1. That's a very good point Christine, and one I hadn't thought of - I think I would probably find that easier to accept.

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  3. Moira - Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting discussion of this. I have to admit that I'm a bit of a purist about stories. I like the Sayers' novels better. And I agree with you about the style, to put it that way. Still I do like Wimsey...

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    1. I wish I could recommend this more. I know you are purist, and I think of myself as more relaxed about it, but actually it's hard to think of many continuations that I really like....

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  4. I've never really gotten into LPW (not through dislike though, more through the books not being as prevalent as other classic series in my corner of the world) but I'm afraid I still couldn't come at someone else's take. It always seems so arrogant to me that anyone would presume to complete someone else's work.

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    1. I know that's your view Bernadette, and I absolutely can see why you think that. I suppose I think that sometimes if readers really would like more books.... but I am coming round to yours (and Margot's) way of thinking these days.

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  5. You have inspired me to to do a blog post on JPW's A Presumption of Death. I wasn't really enthralled with Thrones, Dominations, even with the Sayers connection; and certain comments from people on Emeralds and Scholar have made rather dubious of those two. I think JPW can just get away with the WW2/40s setting; Sayers did give us Talboys and The Wimsey Papers after all. Trying the 1950s and beyond may have been ill-advised. She's charting a course without a map now.

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    1. Oh I'll be very interested to read that Curt. And yes, it might be more dignified to kill the whole project now.

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  6. I did read Thrones, Dominations and liked it pretty much. Read it close to when it came out, so don't remember much about it. I think I must have read A Presumption of Death because I bought the next book, The Attenbury Emeralds, but I still have not read that one and I have had it for years. So I will wait and see if I like that one before getting this one.

    Have you read any of the Imogen Quy series? I thought I might like that better, as it is her own series, but haven't tried it.

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    1. I have read several of the Imogen Quy books, and found them very variable - I liked some of them a lot more than others. I liked A Piece of Justice very much. I also liked some of her straight novels, and my children had a lovely picturebook by her about a grandma....

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  7. I have mixed feelings about this. In general I'm not a big fan of continuation novels. It's like the recent thing with Sebastian Faulks writing a new Jeeves and Wooster novel---you want a new Wodehouse book rather than something by another author. That said, I enjoyed THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS and this new one. The mystery isn't very puzzling in either book, and Walsh's style can be rather gallumphing, but I found both of them fairly distracting. It's possible that I'm just not being critical enough, but she's an okay enough writer for me to keep going. I do wonder, though, how far she intends to push forward the setting. I suspect that if she goes past the 50s it really isn't going to work.

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    1. I know just what you mean. Ideally, another Sayers would suit me. I was certainly up for giving JPW a chance, and have read them - I think there's four to date, but I'm feeling there's diminishing returns. As you imply, maybe she should just leave it at that...

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