***This post contains minor plot spoilers about the The Late Scholar and the later Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers****
I am so grateful to Jill Paton-Walsh for the novels she has written since 1988, based on the characters that Dorothy L. Sayers created in her famous detective novels.
Chief among these is Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic sleuth. But Sayers also created Wimsey’s wonderful manservant, Bunter, his delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess, the not-quite-what-she-seems Miss Climpson; in later novels, Harriet Vane appears and is actively wooed by Lord Peter through four novels, before she ends up accepting his offer of marriage at the end of Gaudy Night.
So far, Paton-Walsh has written four“based on” sequels. For the first, Thrones, Dominations, she had quite a lot of material to go on, as Sayers had written extensive notes and some scenes of this novel. For the second, the war-time A Presumption of Death, she drew on articles written by Sayers and published in the The New Yorker magazine in the early months of the second world war; they are known as the Wimsey papers and are purportedly letters between members of the Wimsey family. For the third, she wove a wonderful story around the mystery surrounding the The Attenbury Emeralds, briefly mentioned in the Sayers Wimsey novels as being young Lord Peter’s first ever case.
The Late Scholar, to my delight, is set in a university town. I was delighted because Gaudy Night is arguably my favourite Sayers novel, although I love them all so much that it’s difficult to pick one that really stands out above the others. But the point is, Gaudy Night takes place in the fictional Shrewsbury College at Oxford University and The Late Scholar takes place in the fictional St Severin’s College at Cambridge University.
The setting is important: Sayers herself was an alumna of Somerville College at Oxford University (lovingly portrayed as Shrewsbury College in Gaudy Night). She had finished her course in modern languages and medieval literature with first class honours in 1915 but was only awarded an MA in 1920, when it became possible for women to gain degrees at Oxford. It is no surprise that Paton-Walsh has located her latest book in Cambridge, given that she lives there. She has also written four detective novels herself, featuring a nurse in the fictional St Agatha’s College at the University of Cambridge.
The university setting is therefore familiar to both the author of the Wimsey books and the author of the sequels. It is also a familiar setting to the two protagonists, Peter and Harriet, now a married couple well advanced in middle age; events dictate that they revisit the halls of academia together, albeit not in their respective alma mater.
Lord Peter turns out to have the special role of a Visitor at St Severin’s College, who in addition to purely ceremonial duties, can be asked to arbiter in case of intractable disagreement within the college that cannot be settled by vote. The novel starts with a fellow of St Crispin’s invoking Lord Peter’s help, to settle such a dispute. The college’s finances are failing and it is reviewing the possibility of selling a precious medieval manuscript, in order to acquire some highly marketable development land nearby. Supporters of the development plan and of those wishing to hold on to the manuscript are equally passionate. Votes to date have ended in a tie, the Warden having abstained from casting a deciding vote, given the sensitivity of the issue. To cap it all, the Warden has been missing since the last vote and there have been a couple of recent, maybe-not-so-accidental deaths in the college. So Peter and Harriet happily tootle off to Cambridge to investigate.
And the plot thickens. As in Gaudy Night, what I enjoyed most was the description of university life, in the late 1950s here, I guess. I enjoyed the mystery aspect, too, with one small proviso. In referencing the Wimsey novels this book, Paton-Welsh draws on the corpus of Harriet Vane, a detective novelist. Yes, Sayers created in Vane a person much like herself, an early female university graduate, who writes detective novels for a living. So in The Late Scholar, an assortment of fellows are dispatched by methods used by Harriet in her own books. I felt that was a little contrived and that the book would have been even better without a frankly implausible range of murder methods.
But that is my only gripe. It was a delightful read and I do hope that Jill Paton-Walsh has more “What Peter and Harriet did next” in the pipeline.