Walsh, Jill Paton. The Late Scholar.

NY: St. Martin, 2013.

When Dorothy Sayers died in 1957, she left behind an uncompleted manuscript about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane called Thrones, Dominations. Walsh came along and the Sayers estate gave her permission to finish it (as by “Sayers & Walsh”). She had published a few modestly successful novels of her own and she did a pretty good job.

Then she dug up the notes for another Wimsey story Sayers had been thinking about but only lightly outlined, called A Presumption of Death, which she also wrote and published (as by “Walsh & Sayers”), and it was . . . okay. Readable, anyway. But then her zeal got the better of her and she whipped out The Attenbury Emeralds, based on Sayers’s characters but entirely her own invention, and published under only her own name. And it was, frankly, almost unreadable, in my opinion. So I wasn’t expecting much from this fourth venture.

The setting is 1953, which means Peter is now in his mid-60s. He’s also now the Duke of Denver, his older brother having died in the last book, when the family mansion also was two-thirds destroyed by fire. His two sons are now preparing for university, as is Bunter’s son (he’s brainier than any of them), and Harriet is, apparently, still putting out mystery novels under her maiden name. By virtue of being the Duke, Peter discovers he is now also the “Visitor” for St. Severin’s College, Oxford, which means he’s the theoretically disinterested referee and authority to whom the fellows can appeal in extremis when they can’t agree on something among themselves. And such a crisis has led them to call in Lord Peter (as he still prefers to be called).

The school owns an ancient book by Boethius (the college’s namesake) which might, just might, have been the personal property of King Alfred, who may have written, or at least added to, the interlinear gloss on many of its pages. If all this is true, it’s very valuable because of its associations, though it’s not a particularly interesting or artistic copy otherwise. And the insurance is also very expensive. And the college, which has fallen on very hard times, simply can’t afford it. Moreover, the fellows have been given the opportunity to purchase a tract of farm land on the outskirts of Oxford onto which the badly overcrowded postwar population is likely to want to expand, which would mean major profits for them — if they sell the Boethius to buy the land. The fellows are split right down the middle, though, and the friction between the “sell now” and “never sell” factions is becoming very nasty, which is damaging the college’s reputation. And then, of course, certain of the fellows begin to die — all in ways that mirror the plots in some of Harriet’s novels, which in turn were based on the events in some of Peter’s cases, which were detailed in some of Sayers’s books. (Got that?)

It’s a nicely complex plot and Walsh handles its development and resolution with some skill, I’m relieved to say. It’s a period piece, obviously — Wimsey isn’t cut out for noir crime thrillers — and Walsh maintains the conventions. However, she also has a tendency to show off. About every third page, she self-consciously notes some current event (e.g., there’s a queen now), or a current movie title, or a current junior politician, as if to say, “See? I did my research! See? See?” It begins to grate. Especially since — unlike Sayers, who was writing about her own time and couldn’t predict the future — Walsh knows which of those persons and events will still seem noteworthy to us in the 21st century. The effect is somewhat jejune and it detracts from what is otherwise not a bad story. Walsh should have set herself more firmly in the early ‘50s and ignored what the other part of her mind knew was to come. A good novelist dealing with historical settings learns how to time-travel.


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