I recently went through a big re-read of all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayers (except Five Red Herrings; there’s really no excuse for that no matter how much I love Sayers or Lord Peter). So it seemed like a good time to pick up the latest of the three “new” Lord Peter novels, in which contemporary mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh has picked up the story and characters long after Sayers laid them down (and died).
Like Walsh’s earlier efforts to complete the Sayers canon (Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death), The Attenbury Emeralds succeeds, though not well enough to please a hardcore Sayers addict. That is, Walsh is a competent writer who does a nice job paying tribute to unforgettable characters created by a greater author. Lord Peter, Harriet, Bunter and the other members of the Wimsey circle don’t quite come alive in the newer books; it’s more as if they were being played by quite good actors, so that they are recognizable yet not completely real.
It’s the voice that no-one can quite capture — both Sayers’ narrative voice, and Lord Peter’s quite unique character voice. If you can forgive that flaw, and you enjoy the characters and setting, you’ll enjoy The Attenbury Emeralds. The emeralds of the title are the subject of Lord Peter’s first case, an incident often referred to in Sayers’ books but never written about in a story of its own. This novel begins in 1951 with Lord Peter telling his wife Harriet the story of his first case — but it eventually becomes clear that though the original missing emeralds were found in 1921, the case was far from closed then, and it has repercussions which continue into the story’s present day.
Personally, I found the actual emerald mystery — both past and present — at once convoluted and flimsy, so it didn’t really engage me. What I did like was the glimpses into the post-WW2 life of the Wimsey family, as Lord Peter, who is both a quintessential and a reluctant English aristocrat, adjusts to the changing society of the postwar world. Class distinctions were always important and the source of both much humour and much serious character development in the Wimsey novels; now a new author shows how in a new era those old boundaries are shifting and people are not entirely comfortable with it. There was never any doubt in the original novels that Lord Peter’s personal manservant Mervyn Bunter was also his dearest friend, but that friendship was always kept within absolutely correct parameters, with Bunter never referring to Peter as anything but “my lord.” In the far more democratic world of the 1950s, Peter and Harriet’s sons are at school with Bunter’s son and the relationship in the next generation is virtually equal — yet the older generation, especially Bunter, is never entirely at ease with the changing definitions of class.
Most interesting of all in this novel is seeing how Lord Peter and Harriet come to terms with Peter’s most uneasy legacy — the Duchy of Denver — in unpredictable ways. The personal elements of this story were far more interesting to me than the mystery, though I think that’s true for me in nearly every mystery novel, and certainly in all the Sayers novels. Obviously this story would have been better and more memorable if Dorothy Sayers herself had written it — but since she didn’t, it’s nice that someone has.