Lord Peter Returns to Oxford in Walsh’s The Late Scholar

Jul 12, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

Have you ever heard of, much less read, a pastiche that pleased all readers? I have not. As we know, even the original classics have their detractors. Some readers are over-the-moon to get a chance to re-enter the world of a beloved author and are generous in their assessments of those who attempt to carry on in the tradition of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte or Dorothy L. Sayers. Other readers will urge pastiche readers to get themselves back to the original authors, to eschew all imitations and to be satisfied with whatever canon as penned.

Allowing that no one could really recreate the works of …etc, creditable “next chapter” books that carry on with the plots and characters of popular classics have found more appreciative readers than they have detractors.

Isn’t it interesting that some pastiche writers have taken well-known authors’ works to another, more contemporary level? They have posited quirky plot and character developments of literary figures or historical persons in accordance with popular literary trends of the day, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. A bit much, I think, but many find them amusing.

Along more traditional lines, in the late 1990s Jill Paton Walsh was commissioned by the Sayers estate to complete the unfinished manuscript of the last Wimsey/Vane novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998). Having met with success, she has written three more in the same vein: A Presumption of Death (2010), The Attenbury Emeralds (2011), and her most recent is The Late Scholar, just published in June of 2014. book

All these novels strike me as pleasing theatrical events in which Walsh has played the role of Sayers in writing the further adventures of her most beloved characters. Sayers may have run out of steam with the world of Wimsey, but Walsh steps in to sort out and deal with these characters, taking them into how they could have evolved as the early 20th century grows toward the breakdown of class distinctions and Britain’s clambering out of the financial abyss that two world wars had sunk them into.

The Late Scholar finds that Lord Peter, now the Duke of Denver, has inherited yet another responsibility incumbent upon his title. He is summoned to Oxford to fulfill the role of Visitor at St. Severin’s College, Oxford, in order to settle a dispute between those dons who wish to sell an ancient annotated manuscript and those dons who refuse to countenance the sale. Of particular interest is that the MS appears to be from the time of Alfred the Great and the marginal notes just may be in King Alfred’s own hand. It is therefore incalculably precious to Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford and for the world at large.

St. Severin’s dons are divided into camps pro- and con-, odd accidents are happening, bodies are starting to turn up and the Warden of St. Severin’s disappears in the midst of all the controversy. As St. Severin’s Visitor, Lord Peter can break tie votes on the issue of selling the MS and has carte blanche to investigate and hopefully to resolve their issues. With his wife, the former Harriet Vane, at his side, he cannot fail.

I found this most recent adventure involving the Wimseys a pleasure to read. In this as in the previous three novels, Walsh has the relationship between Peter and Harriet true to the mark. From her ear for the Wimseys talking “piffle” to understanding and furthering their deep emotional and intellectual bond, it is obvious that she has researched the canon, and can all but channel Dorothy L. Sayers.

Detective novels of the “Golden Age” do not rock everyone’s world. Some find the writing style a bit arch, not to mention that far too many gentleman detectives get the upper hand far too often in them. Still, many readers enjoy going back in time to around and between the world wars to read novels in which detection was still a game.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


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