Paton Walsh, Jill & Dorothy Sayers. A Presumption of Death.

NY: St. Martin, 2002.

Certain long-running series of stories featuring noteworthy protagonists seem to become a lure to other writers to continue the hero’s adventures. The most prominent example, of course, is Sherlock Holmes. And most of the many attempts to write additional tales featuring the Great Detective have been pretty weak. (These days, there’s the phenomenon known as “fan fiction,” but that’s almost always amateur stuff and since it’s written for non-commercial fun, no one expects it to be better than mediocre.)

Paton Walsh, however, was already an author of some note, writing both children’s books and detective stories, and, in addition to receiving a number of awards for her work, she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She was also a deep admirer of Lord Peter Wimsey and when she approached the family of Dorothy Sayers (who died in 1957) for permission to use the characters, they paid attention. In fact, they gave her Sayers’s outline and notes for a projected but never written novel and out of them Paton Walsh produced Thrones, Dominations in 1998. I had my doubts about it (based on the indignities visited on Holmes), but it turned out to be an amazingly good story, with not only a very Sayers-like plot but filled with dialogue and detail from and about Peter and Harriet such that it was nearly impossible to tell the difference from the original. And I enjoyed it very much.

This time, the author cuts her story from whole cloth. The first “continuation” was set in 1936; now it’s 1939, the war with Germany is just under way, and Lord Peter is off somewhere in Europe doing undercover intelligence work. In fact, he only makes an appearance late in the book, though his presence is always felt, watching over his wife’s shoulder. Harriet (now “Lady Peter”) has closed up the London house and taken her two young sons down to their farmhouse in the country, along with the three slightly older children of DCI Parker and Peter’s sister, Lady Mary. (When you have to manage two small children, she says, three more hardly make a difference.) Now she’s involving herself in the life of the village where she grew up as it tries to cope with the home-front aspects of the war — figuring out how to deal with rationing, and the blackout, and stocking an air raid shelter, and pig-slaughtering licenses, and the sudden invasion of Polish refugees and “land girls” helping out on the farms. And then one of the new girls is suddenly and brutally murdered right in the middle of the street during an air raid drill. The local police superintendent (who plays the literary quotation game almost as well as Peter and Harriet) is dreadfully shorthanded — all his young coppers keep resigning so they can enlist — and so Harriet volunteers to assist in the investigation. She’s helped out Peter in the past, of course — but this is the first time she has attempted such a thing on her own and it makes her husband’s absence even more difficult to bear. (In fact, her worries for his safety and her loneliness even when surrounded by others of her family are major themes throughout the book and they’re very well handled.) The investigation leads her even deeper into the affairs of the villagers as they look for ways to get around government regulations in order to continue living, as far as possible, as they always have. And then another body turns up in the form of a wounded and recovering RAF officer — only he isn’t. Are the two murders connected? The Superintendent doesn’t believe in coincidences on that scale, and nor does Harriet.

The plotting is generally well done, though we’re never explicitly told how the land girl came to be murdered in the first place — though enough hints are dropped that the reader (and Harriet) are well able to work out what probably happened. And while the second murder is solved, the killer isn’t brought to justice in the way one might expect. This is wartime, after all, and there are higher priorities. That sort of resolution of the story is rather a calculated risk on the author’s part but it works, mostly. But her picture of life in rural England at the beginning of World War II is extremely well detailed and very affecting — especially for readers of my generation, for whom the war isn’t entirely “history.”


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