A little while ago I finished reading all of Sayers’s Lord Peter books. Then, being me, I started reading Jill Paton Walsh’s Lord Peter books. If you’re not familiar with her, she wrote three novels more or less based on Sayers’s material. It’s an odd thing, reading someone’s attempt to write in someone else’s world. It’s rather like going to a costume party and seeing people trying bravely to pass themselves off as William Wallace or Neo or Prince Humperdink. Sometimes it’s a good mimicry and sometimes it’s just. . .painful.
Walsh, fortunately, is not painful (if you want painful, read A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie King. I don’t mean it’s bad writing, mind you—the writing itself is rather good—but King’s Holmes is an entirely different creature than Doyle’s.). That isn’t to say it’s good mimicry. On the back cover, mystery writer Ruth Rendell claims that “it is impossible to tell where Dorothy L. Sayers ends and Jill Paton Walsh begins.” This makes me very, very concerned. Rendell has published dozens of books. I have published zero books. But I can tell precisely where Sayers ends and Walsh begins. No Sayers fan would be fooled into thinking he was reading Sayers when he picks up one of Walsh’s books. Walsh writes in a completely different style than Sayers, a style immediately recognizable as the product of the tail-end of the twentieth century.
But if we set that point aside, the books are actually rather entertaining, for the most part. Thrones, Dominations, the first, is probably the least interesting. An acquaintance of Peter and Harriet’s is found dead, and they find themselves immersed in yet another murder. The book comes off as just a little self-consciousness, and just a little patronizing. The second book, A Presumption of Death, is set during World War II with both Peter and Bunter abroad on a clandestine assignment from the Foreign Office. Harriet is living at Talboys with the children, and again stumbles upon a dead body. With Peter away and the local police of minimal usefulness, Harriet tackles the case. While this was an improvement upon the first book, it is just a little melodramatic. The last book, The Attenbury Emeralds, consists of Peter telling Harriet about his first case and then dealing with a new crisis over the same jewels.
Walsh either lacks Sayers’s broad knowledge of literature or lacks the ability to weave quotes and allusions into her work. Her characters, especially Peter, come off as more insular and self-contained. Peter doesn’t feel like an Oxford graduate who collects incunabula, and who can quote Dante or Donne at the drop of a hat. The books don’t have the inimitable humor of the originals, and neither Peter nor St. George display their full suavity and charm. Also unlike Sayers, Walsh doesn’t weave her thoughts and philosophies into the thoughts and words of her characters so that they flow subtly and naturally. Rather, they leap out at the reader with all the force of a monsoon. The writing is clunkier than Sayers’s.
Still, aside from these points, Walsh’s efforts are commendable. She captures something of the whimsicality of Peter and his life. Harriet feels quite accurate, and Bunter lives up to his Bunter-ness. If, like me, you’ve devoured all eleven Wimsey novels and all the short stories, and yet, for some strange reason haven’t had enough of Peter, I’d recommend Walsh’s books.
Or you could read Walsh’s books, and then reread Sayers’s too.