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Bookends: A very class conscious murder mystery January 1, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A very class conscious murder mystery

By Dan Davidson

November 27, 2013

– 791 words –


Thrones, Dominations

By Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

384 pages

New English Library


Thrones, Dominations

Audiobook version

10 hours, 14 minutesRead by Ian Carmichael

Blackstone Audio



Lord Peter Wimsey was one of those gentleman detectives that gained popularity among English mystery writers in the early part of the last century. Dorothy Sayers first produced the character in Whose Body (1923) and aged her ideal detective in pretty much real time until she penned her last mystery in 1937.

Wimsey was a bit of a dandy on the surface, but that was a mask for a brilliant inquiring mind. He suffered from what we would now call PTSD, but in those days was termed shellshock, a legacy of his experiences in the Great War.

The other heritage from that conflict was his “Man”, Bunter, who had been his Batman (aide) during the conflict and stayed on as a cook, butler, assistant, etc. in a relationship that was the serious version of what P.G. Wodehouse was working with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane was introduced in the fifth novel in the series, and Wimsey spent the next five books persuading Vane to marry him, after which there was one final novel in 1937.

Sayers, a serious scholar and the only woman to be connected with the writers’ group known as the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, et al) began a book called Thrones, Dominations, but got more interested in working on her massive translation of the Divine Comedy, religious plays, Christian apologetics, and non-fiction on a variety of subjects, so it languished for decades.

Jill Paton Walsh, who was born the year Sayers began that book, was contracted by the family to complete the work in late 1990s, and has continued the series with three more original novels since that time. She had previously created her own mystery series, as well as a long list of children’s books. In 1994 she was short-listed for the Booker Prize for her novel Knowledge of Angels.

Thrones, Dominations is set in 1937, right after the last of Sayers’ books, and is full of period references, some of which could only have been added by Walsh, since there is much written about Hitler’s aggressions in Europe, the death of King George and the ascension to the throne of the rather disappointing Edward VII.

The spotlight in this book is shared by Peter and Harriet, and it is, in part, a chronicle of the beginning of their married life. For Peter, it’s the end of living in posh apartments with Bunter, and having to take up the reins of managing the properties to which he is heir.

For Harriet, the marriage is a move up through several levels of class strata, and she has a good deal to cope with – not the least of which is the decision she has to make about continuing her literary career. He had been writing to support herself. Can she still find the motivation now hat she doesn’t need to?

Their marriage is contrasted with another, that of the Harwells, Laurence and Rosamund, who seem to be the perfect couple. He’s a wealthy theatrical producer and she, like Harriet, has been somewhat elevated by her marriage. When she is found murdered at the country “cottage”, Peter is asked to get involved in the mystery as to who might have done it. There is a suspect, but Peter doesn’ find the case convincing.

It takes establishing the link to another, seemingly unconnected, murder, as well as some of Harriet’s observations, to point him in the right direction.

I’m of two minds about this book, and some of that ambivalence is due to the reader, Ian Carmichael, who played the Wimsey role in a series of BBC adaptations some 30 years ago now. He read well enough, but wasn’t much for getting away from his Lord Peter voice, and I felt the reading needed a bit of variety to be completely successful. It made parts of the book move somewhat slowly, and I found myself waiting for them to leave the class confusion behind and get on with the mystery.

That said, the parts of the book that are about the Wimsey adjusting to their new life together are quite effective, and of the sequences involving Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, are hilarious. Indeed, some of the bridging sections of the book are presented as being her diary entries and letters.

It’s been too long since I read the original Sayers novels for me to be sure that Walsh captured her style, but it did seem very much like what I can recall.