Friday, March 11, 2011

Attenbury Emeralds: The Wimseys Return

The Attenbury emeralds:  The new Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery by Jill Paton Walsh (F PAT Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy many of the classic detectives:  Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, Ellery Queen and, of course, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books. I became attached to the characters and hated to see the series end.  This isn’t to say that I’ve always welcomed other authors coming in to continue the series:  often I find their efforts lack that certain spark which drew me to the original, so I approach these continuations with a bit of trepidation.

I was familiar with Jill Paton-Walsh from her children’s novels, all of which were very well done.  Still, I resisted reading Thrones, Dominations and Presumption of Death, both of which were completed from some material left by Sayers.  Reviews were generally positive, so when this new book came out I resolved to give it a try.

Set after World War II, the Wimseys are changing with the times.  While the warm and loving relationship between Peter and Harriet remains the same, there’s a bit more informality creeping into their lives.  Bunter is still the perfect butler, but he’s also the perfect friend.  His son Peter has grown up with the Wimsey boys and is treated as part of the family.  As the book opens, Lord Peter is regaling Harriet with the story of the first mystery he solved: that of the Attenbury Emeralds.  Actually, it turns out to be three mysteries:  two in the past, then one in the present.

For me, Paton-Walsh does a wonderful job of capturing the relationship between the characters.  She also manages to give a good sense of a time and place—actually, more than one, as her post WWI setting rings as true as does her post-WWII.  She does a wonderful job of putting things into context for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the original series, while gently and unobtrusively explaining some attitudes that may not be particularly palatable to us now.

However, the part of the book that impressed me the most was when Paton-Walsh introduced some life-altering events to the Wimseys’ lives, a daring thing to do with iconic characters.  Yet it didn’t feel gratuitous—an author determined to put her stamp on a character-- but natural, believable, and a reflection of some of the changes British society was undergoing at the time.
I found this to be a good, solid British mystery in all the best senses of the term.  The characters are clear- eyed and progressive; they see an era passing but are ready to face change, both good and ill.  There are pots of tea, affectionate exchanges, and some witty banter, but these are characters with steel inside. 

I’ll be reading the other Lord Peter Wimsey books by Paton Walsh.

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