A Presumption of Death, by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers

>> Sunday, June 15, 2008

TITLE: A Presumption of Death
AUTHOR: Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers

PAGES: 378
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton in the UK

SETTING: England, early days of 2nd World War
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: A Presumption of Death is Jill Paton Walsh's continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series. Unlike Thrones, Dominations, which had already been partly written by Sayers and which Paton Walsh completed, APOD was wholly written by the latter, basing herself on The Wimsey Papers (a collection of letters between members of the Wimsey family published in newspapers during the war).

REASON FOR READING: I can't get enough of Lord Peter and Harriet.

While Lord Peter is abroad on a secret mission, Harriet Vane, now Lady Peter Wimsey, takes their children to safety in the country. But there's no escape from war: rumors of spies abound, glamorous RAF pilots and flirtatious land-girls scandalize the villagers, and the blackout makes rural lanes as sinister as London's alleys. And when a practice air-raid ends with a young woman's death, it's almost a shock to hear that the cause is not enemy action, but murder. Or is it? With Peter away, Harriet sets out to find out whodunit...and the chilling reason why.
MY THOUGHTS: When reading this book and evaluating my enjoyment of it, the first thing I considered was how well it succeeded at being about my old friends Peter and Harriet. Unfortunately the answer was "not very". I didn't really recognise the P & H here as the P & H from Sayers novels. Paton Walsh tried, including by having Harriet reminisce often about events in the previous novels, but it felt a bit awkward... a kind of "hey, hey, I'm that Harriet!" kind of thing that shouldn't have been necessary.

So I decided early on that I'd be better off just reading it as a wartime murder mystery starring characters who were quite nice and interesting and whom I'd never met before. As such, it was all right. The basic plot is that during an air raid drill a young woman is murdered on the streets of the village. The police are busy with other stuff, so the detective in charge needs help. Since her famous detective husband is away, he asks Harriet. Strains credibility, but all right. And thus starts an investigation which will take off in some unexpected directions.

The mystery itself wasn't particularly good. The basic plot about the young woman's death was quite obvious, and Paton Walsh laid the clues rather thickly and unsubtly. I challenged myself by writing down what I thought had happened pretty early in the book, and it turned out to be the exact solution. But then there is another death, and that one has the opposite problem. The solution is one that would be impossible to guess by a reader.

What's best about the book is the setting, in a small English village during the early years of World War II. It's a setting that's written with a great deal of ex-post clarity about the significance of the events going on (all the world events that the characters find their attention caught by are events that turn out to be significant if the grand scheme of things, which is often not the case in real life), but it was very enjoyable to read. It added a lot of poignancy to the story, as well as some humorous moments.

MY GRADE: I'll go with a B-. Not great, but worth reading.


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