Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L Sayers: A Presumption of Death

In the 1930s and '40s, there were three British crime writers who could all put in a reasonable claim to the title Queen of Crime. They were Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L Sayers.

Of these three, the one who appeals most to me is Margery Allingham; and, as described in my post of 4 June 2004, I recently re-read the whole of her output, from start to finish, with a great deal of pleasure.

Agatha Christie, of course, outsold any of them (though Allingham and Sayers had the higher reputations in literary circles), and she continues to mint a small fortune even today. The copyrights of Agatha's output are now owned by Chorion, a company which, even as we speak, is devising new ways to package the old lady's extensive oeuvre. A mere ten days or so ago, I watched an extremely glossy two-hour version of The Sittaford Mystery, a Miss Marple story, on ITV. (The official Christie web site is therefore out of date in saying that the story has never been adapted for stage or or screen; and the new version can be bought on DVD, should you wish.) Judging by the ones that I've seen, most of the new TV versions of the old stories introduce some new motivations which would have been quite impossible in Agatha's day, such as incest and lesbianism.

For all its machinations, however, the Christie estate and now Chorion have steadfastly avoided licensing any new novels featuring the great Christie detectives, such as Miss Marple and Poirot. And the same is true of Allingham, although Margery's husband, Philip Youngman Carter, finished off a couple of her planned novels after her death.

But the same is not true of Dorothy L Sayers. In her case, the distinguished novelist Jill Paton Walsh was allowed/commissioned to complete the novel Thrones, Dominations, and she has also written a new novel which features Sayers's famous series detective, Lord Peter Wimsey: A Presumption of Death (2002).

Like Christie and Allingham, Sayers has a society dedicated to the preservation of her memory and the dissemination of information about her, and you can find a short biography of her there. Born in 1893, she died in 1957. A scholarly woman, and a Christian, she produced 14 volumes of novels and short stories with Lord Peter Wimsey as her detective. As his name suggests, Wimsey was very definitely a member of the aristocracy.

Jill Paton Walsh is perhaps chiefly famous for the fact that, when unable to find a mainstream publisher for her novel Knowledge of Angels, she published it herself. The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.

So much for the background to A Presumption of Death. And what of the story?

Well, for this book Walsh has moved on in time to 1940 -- when, as you may recall, there was a war on. Wimsey is now married, to another of Sayers's characters, the former Harriet Vane. Harriet has taken her young children to safety in the English countryside (cities being bombed at the time). Before long a murder is committed in this quiet English village, but Wimsey himself is abroad, on a secret mission for the Government, and so Harriet is at first obliged to investigate on her own.

Regular readers of the older whodunits, such as those produced by Christie, Allingham, and Sayers, will know what to expect. Essentially, the reader is required to accept a preposterous proposition, namely that a private individual would be able to out-think the police force, and indeed would be allowed and encouraged to participate in the official investigation of a murder. But, if one is to read more than a page or two of any one of a thousand examples of the genre, it is necessary to accept this device as a given. Once that is swallowed, the rest goes down easily.

As murder stories go, A Presumption of Death is very cosy and domestic indeed. So much so that at first I thought I would not be able to finish it. But therein lies Walsh's skill: she bluffs you a bit at first, and then you find that the writing and the characterisation have a harder edge than expected, and you stick with it.

It turns out that this novel is at least as much about life in wartime, and about family affairs, as it is about crime; and it's none the worse for that. Walsh has done her homework, and we learn some interesting facts, such as that, given a wartime shortage of shotgun ammunition, country people made their own lead pellets from melted-down piping. We also learn quite a lot about keeping pigs, both legally and illegally.

The second murder, when it occurs, is a bit far-fetched, but that really doesn't matter. By now the thoughtful reader will have realised that the murders are but a device for the revelation of character. This is not one of those John Dickson Carr-type novels, in which fiendish (and fundamentally incredible) devices are used to produce a dead man in a locked room, or whatever. This is a novel about people. And at the end, with little help from the poet Shelley, this manages to be a truly moving novel. That's no mean achievement, whodunit or no whodunit.


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J said...

Since this was originally written, both Poirot and Campion have featured in continuation novels by other authors...