The Attenbury Emeralds – Jill Paton Walsh

A new Lord Peter Wimsey novel, what a treat! Jill Paton Walsh has successfully completed a couple of manuscripts left by Dorothy L Sayers & now she has created a completely new story using Sayers’s familiar characters. The previous Wimsey story, A Presumption of Death, was set during WWII. Now, in The Attenbury Emeralds, it’s 1951. Peter Wimsey is 60, still blissfully happy with Harriet, his detective writing wife. They have three sons, live in London & still own the country house, Talboys, that Peter bought for Harriet as a wedding present & where they spent their honeymoon in Busman’s Honeymoon. Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, is still her inimitable self at 85. Bunter hasn’t changed a bit or grown a day older & lives in with his wife, Hope, & son Peter, known as PB.

Peter is reminded of his first case, the disappearance of the Attenbury emeralds, by the obituary of Lord Attenbury. It was 1921, Wimsey had returned from the trenches in a nervous mental state & the house party at the Attenburys was to be his first foray into Society. The Attenburys were family friends & it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to test the extent of Wimsey’s recovery. The occasion for the house party was the announcement of the engagement of the eldest daughter, Charlotte, to Reggie Northerby. At dinner on the first evening, Charlotte was to wear the family jewels, a suite of emeralds with an enormous square-cut emerald as the centrepiece. The emerald could be worn as part of a necklace or as a tiara & had a Persian inscription on the back. The Attenburys are surprised to receive a visit from Mr Nandine Osmanthus, an envoy from an Indian Maharaja wanting to buy the emerald. The Maharaja owned the pair of this one & Wimsey sees the jewel, almost identical to the Attenbury’s emerald except for the inscription on the back. Lord Attenbury refuses to sell & sends Osmanthus off pretty smartly.

That night, when Charlotte goes to her room to dress for dinner, she discovers the emerald is missing. She appears at dinner wearing the paste replica of the jewels that was kept in the house as the real emeralds were kept at the bank & only brought out on special occasions. But, the theft can’t be kept secret & Wimsey begins investigating, hindered by heavy-footed Inspector Sugg & helped by Charles Parker, later an Inspector at Scotland Yard & brother-in-law of Peter. Peter eventually tracks the jewel down to a pawnbroker & discovers that Reggie Northerby had pawned it. Charlotte breaks her engagement but Northerby isn’t prosecuted for the theft & everything seems to have been successfully hushed up.

A few days after Wimsey & Bunter have told Harriet the story, the present Lord Attenbury, grandson of the old Lord, appears asking for Peter’s help. The authenticity of the emerald in the bank has been questioned. Attenbury is desperate to sell the emerald to save the family home but nothing can be done until the disputed provenance is settled. Peter agrees to investigate as someone has turned up claiming that the emerald in the Attenbury’s bank is not their emerald & can prove it. The emerald is certainly authentic but how could it have been swapped for another? Is this the Maharaja’s emerald that Peter saw all those years ago? There was no opportunity for Mr Osmanthus to have swapped the stones & the emerald has only been out of the vault a few times since.

Peter follows the trail back over the years, talking to the family & anyone else who had access to the jewel. He discovers some accidental deaths that now seem less accidental & more sinister. Then he discovers that there were originally three emeralds & the Maharaja will do anything to reunite them.

This is a wonderful mystery story. I loved meeting up with Peter, Harriet, Bunter, Charles Parker, the Duke of Denver & his snobbish Duchess. Jill Paton Walsh has immersed herself in Dorothy L Sayers’s work & doesn’t strike a wrong note throughout. Peter & Harriet trade quotations & sleuth as energetically as they ever did. This is a real treat for fans of the Wimsey stories who have read the series over & over again (as I have) & are thrilled to have a new story to enjoy.

This is my last post for 2010. Happy New Year to everyone who visits the blog. I’ll be back tomorrow with some reflections on my first year as a blogger & some reading resolutions for 2011.

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