You’ve just finished re-reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors for the nth time with a deep sigh… ‘They don’t write them like that, anymore,’ you mutter, kicking the cat in disgust. However, Jill Paton Walsh, an accomplished murder mystery writer in her own right has adopted The Mantle and has written three more Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I’ve just completed The Attenbury Emeralds – and while she may not have the exact feel of Sayers, she has skilfully negotiated the timeline so that it isn’t such a big issue.
It was 1921 when Lord Peter Wimsey first encountered the Attenbury emeralds. The recovery of the magnificent gem in Lord Attenbury’s most dazzling heirloom made headlines – and launched a shell-shocked young aristocrat on his career as a detective.
Now it is 1951: a happily married Lord Peter has just shared the secrets of that mystery with his wife, the detective novelist Harriet Vane. Then the new young Lord Attenbury – grandson of Lord Peter’s first client – seeks his help again, this time to prove who owns the gigantic emerald that Wimsey last saw in 1921. It will be the most intricate and challenging mystery he has ever faced…
It certainly is intricate. Walsh weaves through a series of timelines with assurance and skill, as we follow the very complicated fate of this amazing gem. Several surprises are served up along the way – and you may guess whodunit – I didn’t, but then I generally don’t try very hard when I’m in the hands of a really good mystery spinner, preferring to just allow the story to whip me long in its wake. But, for me, the highlight of this novel isn’t necessarily the labyrinthine plot, it’s catching up with a host of other favourite characters – Charles, Helen, Gerald and, of course, Bunter. Who in 1951 is an outright anachronism.
So, does Walsh pull it off? Yes, in my opinion she certainly does. By jumping ahead to the fifties, the fact that Lord Peter’s speech and mannerisms have changed is completely believable and the impact of death duties and a new mood sweeping the country on aristocratic families works very well. Sayers’ wonderful, complex detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, may not have quite the dynamic intensity in Walsh’s reincarnation – but then again, he is now well into middle age, after years of domestic bliss. The angst-ridden edge that haunted many of the earlier novels during his long, sometimes desperate, courtship of Harriet Vane, alongside his guilty misery whenever he successfully tracked down a murderer, is bound to be blunted.
All in all, this is an enjoyable and successful transition of one of detective fiction’s most famous and well-loved characters. It was a very big ask for any author to take this project on, but Jill Paton Walsh has definitely fulfilled the brief.