Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Family Jewels

There is a mysterious new book in the library. Its title is The Attenbury Emeralds and the main character is the aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

“But how can this be?” you say. “Lord Peter’s creator, Dorothy L. Sayers, died in 1957.”

"Ah,” I respond, “this venerable and prolific lady left pages and pages of material upon her death, ready to be compiled into novels.”

And the mystery of how this came to be a new book in the library …? In their wisdom, the trustees of Dorothy Sayers’ estate decided to do just that. They selected Jill Paton Walsh, a respected author and passionate Sayers fan, to do the work. Besides writing contemporary fiction such as Knowledge of Angels and A Desert in Bohemia, Paton Walsh is the author of the Imogen Quy (rhymes with “why”) mystery series: The Wyndham Case, A Piece of Justice, The Debts of Dishonor, and The Bad Quarto.

Her first task was to complete Sayers’ nearly finished novel which includes not only a mystery but also the marriage of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. This she did admirably in Thrones, Dominations. Paton Walsh next tackled a series of letters that Sayers wrote as contributions to The Spectator Magazine during World War II telling what Lord Peter, Harriet and the other characters were doing during the war. These were compiled into the novel A Presumption of Death.

With the permission of the Sayers estate, Paton Walsh continues their story in The Attenbury Emeralds. Here we find Lord Peter and Harriet, his wife of nearly 20 years, involved in a mystery which actually began 30 years in the past. In 1921, Lord Peter had helped the Earl of Attenbury to discreetly sort out a question of missing jewels. Thirty years later, Edward Abcock, grandson and heir of the now-deceased Earl, again asks for Peter’s help when it is found that the large emerald in the family’s bank safe is not actually the one that belongs to them.

With this book and her two previous collaborative efforts, Paton Walsh gives Wimsey fans a satisfying answer to our most vexing question: What happened next? But in telling the story of Peter and Harriet’s life together, Paton Walsh lets us know that it was not just about sleuthing. Over the years we see them grapple with questions of aristocratic responsibility, changes in class and economic status over time, justice versus duty, and the definition of family which is not limited to ties of blood and marriage.

The characters in the books themselves divide the Wimsey canon into distinct halves: “Peter before Harriet” and “Peter after Harriet”. Peter before Harriet will require another blog. For now, I hope you will enjoy these titles from the Peter with Harriet half:

Strong Poison (Sayers), available in book, CD and DVD

Have His Carcase (Sayers), book, DVD

Gaudy Night (Sayers), book, CD, DVD

Thrones, Dominations (Sayers and Paton Walsh), book, cassette

Busman’s Honeymoon (Sayers), book, CD

A Presumption of Death (Paton Walsh and Sayers), book, CD

The Attenbury Emeralds (Paton Walsh), book


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