The Late Scholar

Written by Jill Paton Walsh
Review by Sarah Bower

Peter Wimsey, now Duke of Denver, learns that one of the responsibilities that goes with his title is to adjudicate, as Visitor, over disputes among the fellows of St. Severin’s College, Oxford. When trouble breaks out over the possible sale of a valuable manuscript to finance a purchase of land, Peter and his duchess, the crime writer Harriet Vane, find themselves caught up in a catalogue of murders which seem to be inspired by Harriet’s novels.

This is Paton Walsh’s fourth novel featuring Dorothy L. Sayers’ gentleman detective and, although Peter and Harriet are now middle-aged, long married and the parents of two teenage sons, in some ways at sea in the post-war world, it is an unfaltering and delightful hommage to Sayers’ books. As one who came to Lord Peter via his TV incarnation, the spirit of Edward Petherbridge was never far from my reading. Age notwithstanding, Paton Walsh’s Peter remains dashing, intellectual and prone to driving too fast. His passion for his bluestocking wife is undimmed.

The novel’s plot is, if not predictable, comfortable in its linearity and charming in its unworldliness. Only the detectives of the Golden Age could find themselves investigating murders motivated by hostile reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and arcane arguments about the glossing of a 9th-century Boethius. While Paton Walsh allows herself a modicum of gore, the violence here is decorous, ingenious and unlikely to frighten the horses. As Peter, Harriet and the indispensable Bunter track down the murderer, quoting poetry, punting and drinking pints with C. S. Lewis as they go, the reader cannot help but be entranced by a world of courteous murder and elegant solutions just about as real as Narnia.