Jill Paton Walsh has written several novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane, the characters created & made famous by Dorothy L Sayers. The Late Scholar is the latest of these & it’s a real treat for anyone whose favourite Sayers novel is Gaudy Night (as mine is).
It’s the 1950s & Peter is now Duke of Denver, inheriting the title from his brother, Gerald. Among his many duties, Peter discovers that he is the Visitor of St Severin’s College, Oxford. The Visitor of an Oxford college has mainly ceremonial duties – installing the Warden, for example. However, the Visitor can also be called upon to resolve disputes &, in this capacity, Peter has been asked to resolve a dispute which has turned very nasty indeed.
The College is in debt & the fellows are split on the course to pursue to pay off the debt & put the College on a better financial footing. The College owns a valuable Anglo-Saxon manuscript that may have been annotated by Alfred the Great. The fellows have an opportunity to purchase some farmland that has opportunities for development but to buy the land, they must sell the manuscript. The college is locked in a bitter dispute with the votes on either side evenly divided. The casting vote belongs to the warden of the College, who has disappeared. Then, the murders begin. Peter & Harriet are dismayed to realise that the methods used by the murderer have been suggested by the murders in Harriet’s books which were, in turn, based upon some of Peter’s cases. Harriet & Peter go to Oxford hoping to relive happier times but find themselves hunting a murderer.
I enjoyed The Late Scholar very much. Dorothy L Sayers is my favourite novelist of the Golden Age & I have reread her books many times. I’ve also enjoyed all of Jill Paton Walsh’s continuations & new novels as she obviously admires Sayers & has an immense fondness for the characters. There are many echoes of Gaudy Night in this book & Miss Lydgate & the Warden of Shrewsbury have cameos as well as favourite characters from the Wimsey novels – Bunter, of course, Uncle Matthew & the Dowager Duchess, a little frailer but still as loquacious as ever.
The novel isn’t just a wallow in nostalgia, though. The plot is satisfyingly full of clues & possible suspects as well as the obligatory red herrings. I especially enjoyed the discussions about the authenticity of the manuscript & its annotations (Bunter’s photographic skills come in handy, here) & the young scholar Jackson whose enthusiasm for the manuscript is based on his hopes of basing his career on studying it. The dons are a mixture of the noble & the venal & the atmosphere of Oxford is as seductive as ever. I’m not usually a fan of authors adapting or continuing the series of others but I think this is the exception. Jill Paton Walsh has done a fine job & fans of Peter & Harriet are in for a treat.