So, The Late Scholar. This is the first of JPW’s Wimsey sequels that doesn’t draw at all on manuscript/apocryphal DLS material, and I think it’s the better for it. In the case of Thrones, Dominations, the 30s setting and initial DLS element is a good portion of the pain: it is impossible to read it without thinking how much better it could be. In the second and third books, folding DLS into the plot just makes things feel constrained, as the plot fits around the fragments rather than cutting loose on its own. Here at least there is no constraint but that brought by JPW herself – present enough, but at least not a double whammy.
The plot is relatively simple. It turns out that along with the Dukedom, Peter has inherited the visitorship** of an Oxford college. You’d have thought that his elder brother might have mentioned this over the years, but never mind. The college is broke, and wants to sell a potentially valuable manuscript to get itself out of trouble. Other people don’t want to sell the MS, and people start dropping dead. So Peter steps in to try and sort out the dispute and the, as it turns out, murder.
I can’t say that I cared terribly about the plot. One perennial problem with JPW is that she has missed the fact that DLS’s novels are always about something other than murder***. This isn’t, no more than such period pieces as Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodgings. On the other hand, in the mid-fifties we are just about into the period JPW knows herself, and while I’m not quite convinced by the setting, it is at least handled with greatest assurance and thus evenness, than previous books. As a whodunit its OK. I’ve read a lot worse. I don’t particularly care for the solution, I’m not sure that it plays fair (I haven’t actually read a lot of whodunit), but it carries Peter and Harriet’s story along. This is a Peter who seems to have accepted being a Duke and Harriet the Duke’s wife (oh, there’s lots of references to her as a writer, but we don’t see much of it – in DLS’s letters, meanwhile, Harriet’s earnings are the ones supporting the estate at this point). They still have plenty of sex, and JPW is keen we should know this. The OOC noblesse oblige continues – it isn’t that Peter doesn’t help important witnesses, but canon Peter puts them up in hotels or takes them to the shops, he doesn’t billet them on his friends. There are a few compulsory cameos. Oxford is, despite all, sacred, although it is admitted one might have other gods ****.
Ultimately, this is a perfectly decent tribute/pastiche that will satisfy many casual readers of Sayers and perhaps attract some new ones. It is considerably better than most faux Golden Age mystery novels, and indeed than a lot of the second tier original ones. It has a reasonably credible setting, Peter and Harriet, and a plot. But in the end I’m just not really bothered about it. I don’t feel it does anything new, nor that it has anything in particular to say. And Dorothy L Sayers always had something to say.
*And ranting fic.
**Sort of arbitration role.
***Even Five Red Herrings, just.
****I can sympathise with the Eldest Son feeling thick compared to his parents, and wanting to do agriculture properly – except that surely one goes to Cirencester – but I’d have thought that Peter would have been right behind it, preferring dedication to the cause to pissing about at Christ Church doing whatever the 1950s Oxford equivalent of Land Economy was in order to join the rowing team.