Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers

A Presumption of Death: A New Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane Mystery by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers --- 376 pages

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was of course one of the great mystery novelists of the "Golden Age" of British detective fiction, and her noble sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey first appeared in 1923 in the novel Whose Body. Sayers wrote eleven novels and two sets of short stories featuring Lord Peter. The best known of these are the four in which Peter meets, pursues, proposes to and marries mystery writer Harriet Vane.

Harriet and Peter meet in Strong Poison when she is being tried for the murder of her lover and Peter is looking for evidence that will exonerate her. At the end of the book he proposes and she refuses to marry him for nothing more than gratitude. In Have His Carcase Harriet has gone off on her own to recover from her ordeal when she stumbles across another gruesome murder. Her recent notoriety makes her instantly a suspect and once again Peter rushes to her defense. The two, working in uneasy tandem, are successful in discovering the real murderer and his motive.

After several intervening novels sans Harriet, the two are reunited in Gaudy Night. Harriet has been invited to attend a gaudy (something like a reunion) at her college in Oxford; it turns out the college is being harrassed by someone with a grudge against the scholars and dons, and Harriet is asked to quietly investigate and avert a scandal. She invites Peter's assistance and begins to seriously consider whether it's possible for a marriage to be a real partnership of equals. When the mystery is resolved, Peter proposes for the last time --- and Harriet makes up her mind at last. The last novel, Busman's Honeymoon, was adapted from a successful West End play of the same name, and finds Peter and Harriet embarking on matrimony and finding a corpse in their honeymoon cottage.

Sayers subsequently published one more short story, 'Tallboys," that shows us the Wimseys' domestic life. Sayers turned to other interests, but during World War II she published a series of articles known collectively as "The Wimsey Papers," describing the Wimseys coping with the challenges of wartime. Sometime in the 1930s Sayers began, but put aside unfinished, another Wimsey-Vane novel. Sixty years later the manuscript re-surfaced in her publisher's office in London.

The trustees of Sayers' estate contracted with British author Jill Paton Walsh to complete the book, which was finally published in 1998 under the title Thrones, Dominations, a mystery set during the run up to World War II.

In 2002 Paton Walsh published A Presumption of Death, using materials and ideas from "The Wimsey Papers." The story is set in 1940, at the start of the London Blitz. Peter and Bunter have been sent on a secret mission against the Germans by British Intelligence. Harriet has taken the children, and the children of Peter's sister Mary, to the relative safety of their house in Hertfordshire. But even quiet Paggleham is suffering the effects of war: refugees billeted in the village; dashing young RAF pilots from nearby airfields and land girls working on local farms upsetting village notions of propriety; and the blackout and rationing regulations have everyone feeling anxious. When the village's first air raid drill ends with the discovery of a dead body in the middle of the village square, Harriet is asked to assist the local police in their investigation.

Paton Walsh has combined a clever mystery with a vivid evocation of the fears and uncertainties of the opening months of the war, with Britain confronted by an enemy at its gates and a government that did not inspire confidence.

For fans of Lord Peter and Harriet, it's particularly wonderful to see their story continue. If you are not familiar with the original books by Dorothy L. Sayers I suggest you start with them. Click HERE to find the Wikipedia article on Sayers with a list of the titles.

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