This post is a testament to the pleasures of re-reading. I was reminded of this book when a friend said she was enjoying re-reading it, so I took another look too. I think I liked it more this time than I did when it originally came out in 1998. And yes, it is a variety of fan fiction, designed to take advantage of the ‘what happened next?’ impulse. It’s also a way of reprising the world that Sayers created with her Wimsey stories in the golden age of crime writing.
Jill Paton Walsh has taken an unfinished crime story which Sayers abandoned in 1936 and turned it into Thrones, Dominions. I don’t know how much Sayers had written; some of the plot devices recall techniques she adopted in earlier books, so perhaps she had sketched out the story. But whoever contributed what, Paton Walsh has done a wonderful job of seamlessly pulling it all together so that the characters and setting as well as the plot all could easily have been written by Sayers. It may be objected that taking over another writer’s style, characters and world view is a lesser achievement than creating one’s own, and this is probably true. But it is no mean achievement to do it so well.
Sayers’s last completed crime story, Busman’s Holiday, saw Harriet Vane finally married to Lord Peter Wimsey. The Vane/Wimsey stories are all love stories as well as crime stories, and this one is no exception; we see here how the pair manages their married life. Indeed married life is one of the themes of the book, as the experience of Harriet and Peter is set against that of another couple, Rosamund and Laurence Harwell. ‘Honest dealing’ and equality – ‘a marriage of true minds’ – is the aim of Harriet and Peter. This doesn’t seem to be the case for the Harwells, and disaster comes of it.
Sayers excelled at clever puzzle plots in which the amateur detective joins the dots more skilfully than the police. Aficionados of her work will recognise the plot devices and guess who dunnit quite easily. Readers less familiar with golden age puzzle conventions won’t really have that much trouble either. But for all that, the plot is clever, the clues well placed and the solution satisfying. I also find it interesting that Sayers/Paton Walsh (probably the latter) offer a defence of the function of crime stories of the golden age as upholders of the status quo. Peter is speaking of the crime novel Harriet is writing when he says: ‘Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world where wrongs are righted …’ but this of course applies equally to this book, and the genre to which it belongs. ‘I suppose very clever people can get their vision of justice from Dostoyevsky,’ he says. ‘But there aren’t enough of them to make a climate of opinion … you show [ordinary people] by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living’.
One reason why people these days may not read Sayers’s crime stories is that the setting and main character can be seen as dated and snobbish, and/or awash with nostalgia. A rich and titled bachelor with a devoted man servant is after all a bit of a cliché. This book tries for a broader setting. The year is 1936, and it has an air of impending crisis: Hitler marching into the Rhineland, the death of King George V, the assumption to the throne of the worryingly pro-German Edward VIII, and his dalliance with Mrs Simpson. The ‘orderly world’ feels rather threatened. Harriet is of course aware that she has entered a social stratum of exceptional privilege, and tries to apply common sense to some of its more silly conventions. But the writers can scarcely criticise this world, as it is one they have lovingly created. Sayers/Paton Walsh do, however, offer a defence of the aristocratic Wimsey as a detective. ‘I accuse myself,’ he says, ‘of accepting and enjoying the title and rank and privilege – the unthinking automatic respect given me for reasons of birth – and not giving back value for them; not pulling my weight … But at least … I can do an honest turn as a surrogate policeman.’ This may or may not satisfy the modern reader. It’s all too good to be true – which is of course its attraction. I guess it’s another of those personal preferences.
Jill Paton Walsh has had a distinguished writing career – she is now 75 – winning prizes for her children’s literature, and a Booker Prize short-listing for Knowledge of Angels in 1994. I’ve read several of her novels and have enjoyed them, though with some reservations about her world view. I guess I can accept her conservative approach better in the 1930s than in the 1990s. You can read more about her here.