Monday, 9 June 2014

The Further Adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane

I've loved Dorothy Sayers' mysteries right back to the days of Ian Carmichael playing Lord Peter on TV. Harriet Vane has been one of my heroines for nearly as long - Harriet Walter played her just as I'd imagined in the TV series dramatising the stories Strong Poison, Gaudy Night and Have His Carcase which also starred Edward Petherbridge (a wonderful Wimsey).
The trouble with such a good series, with such memorable characters, is that there are never enough of them. Dorothy Sayers moved on to other work, such as the radio play about the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, and her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, though she did leave clues to later stories she might have been planning.
The first of these clues was turned into the story Thrones, Dominions by Jill Paton Walsh - and she did it well enough that it was quite hard to see where Dorothy Sayers ended and Jill Paton Walsh began. It helped, I think, that Jill Paton Walsh had already written crime novels of her own. She's also a very good children's writer.
Thrones, Dominions was set in 1936, at the beginning of Peter and Harriet's married life, and was popular enough for Jill Paton Walsh to be asked to do another.
In A Presumption of Death, the time is 1940, and Peter and Harriet are living at Talboys with their small children. Talboys and the children appeared in the last Lord Peter story that Dorothy Sayers ever wrote, which was collected in the volume Striding Folly, and was set in 1942. Here, there are a couple of murders, one very grisly, unlicensed pigs, and a lot of detail about rationing and daily life in the "phony war" before the Blitz.
For this book, Jill Paton Walsh had a lot less to go on - Dorothy Sayers had written a series of letters from various members of the Wimsey family and familiar cast of her books, discussing aspects of the War, for the Spectator magazine, and some of these are included in the book. I must say I couldn't tell the difference between the letters and the rest of the story, though one or two of the details did make me think that the author was showing off her research a bit. The letters placed Lady Helen at the Ministry of Instruction and Morale, and Lord Peter and Bunter off on a secret mission somewhere, where they remain for the first part of the book. So it's Harriet who starts to investigate the mysterious murder of a land girl while the rest of the village were having an air raid practice down the cellars of the local pub (apart from the Methodists, who would rather use a nearby cave than be in close proximity to alcohol, whatever the reason for it).
There are two more books in the series after this, and I'll be tracking them down eventually. Even pastiche Wimsey is worth reading, and it's nice to see where the characters get to after the original books run out.

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