Jill Paton Walsh
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.
Let me begin by saying that Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night is one of my all-time favourite mysteries and that her Five Red Herrings was one of the worst books through which I’ve ever struggled. Train timetable mysteries may have been all the rage when she wrote Five Red Herrings, but, like bell bottoms, these are a thing very much better left forgotten. Alas, it is on the strength of this last book that I have not gone back to read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries. In a way, the fact that they are there waiting for me is a comfort, but I’m also not in a rush to repeat the disappointment of the herrings.
Still and all, when I read Alex’s review of the book and heard about Jill Paton Walsh’s project to revive the late Dorothy Sayers’s detecting duo, it was inducement enough to break one of my usual habits of beginning at the beginning and working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre. Not only have I missed some of the originals, but Walsh now has four Wimsey books under her belt, and I’m only just catching on.
No matter, this is a book that can largely stand alone, and, like Gaudy Night, it’s a campus novel. The mystery plot revolves around an ancient manuscript and the murderer seems to be using Harriet Vane’s own plots to knock off scholars at St. Severin’s College in Oxford. Campus novel, academic politics, libraries, poison pen book reviews, books and intertextuality–The Late Scholar ticks lots of boxes in my list of things to love.
And this book is palpably a labour of love for Walsh:
In bringing Peter and Harriet back to Oxford it resumes the setting, although not the epoch, of Gaudy Night. And it brings them very nearly into my own epoch; it is set in 1952 and I went up to Oxford in 1955. I am writing them for the first time into a world that I actually knew, my Oxford, as beloved to me as Sayers’ Oxford was to her. I have had the most tremendous fun doing that. (More here.)
And I had tremendous fun reading it.