Review: The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh

late scholar by jill paton walshFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback
Genre: Mystery
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, #4
Length: 369 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Date Released: June 17, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When a dispute among the Fellows of St. Severin’s College, Oxford University, reaches a stalemate, Lord Peter Wimsey discovers that as the Duke of Denver he is “the Visitor”—charged with the task of resolving the issue. It is time for Lord Peter and his detective novelist wife, Harriet, to revisit their beloved Oxford, where their long and literate courtship finally culminated in their engagement and marriage.

At first, the dispute seems a simple difference of opinion about a valuable manuscript that some of the Fellows regard as nothing but an insurance liability, which should be sold to finance a speculative purchase of land. The voting is evenly balanced. The Warden would normally cast the deciding vote, but he has disappeared. And when several of the Fellows unexpectedly die as well, Lord Peter and Harriet set off on an investigation to uncover what is really going on at St. Severin’s.

My Review:

The Lord Peter Wimsey series always makes me think of the 1920s, even though the later novels have continued the story well past that era. The early stories are steeped in that between the wars period, and the relationships that continue in this new series all carry some reminders of their beginnings.

And yes, I’ve read the entire series, including the late additions by Jill Paton Walsh. The original stories still sparkle, especially the series-within-a-series of Lord Peter’s meeting, defense and courtship of the mystery novelist Harriet Vane. (Start with Strong Poison)

But this story, The Late Scholar, takes place after World War II. Peter’s situation has changed from the early stories, where he was the second son of the Duke of Denver, and was permitted to spend his time and energy solving mysteries as a private detective. He wasn’t expected to inherit the estate, so it didn’t matter so much how he occupied himself.

And he was an excellent detective.

The war and it’s aftermath changed things. Both his brother and his nephew are dead. Peter is now the Duke, and has inherited both the privileges and the responsibilities that come with the position. And that’s where this story begins.

The Duke of Denver, whoever might hold the title, is also the official ‘visitor’ for one of the Oxford colleges. The duties of the Visitor are to install new Wardens for the college and settle contentious disputes as a last resort.

St. Severin’s is embroiled in a conflict that threatens to split the college. They have a valuable manuscript that some of the college Fellows want to sell, in order to buy land with the money. The college is in fairly dire financial straits, so purchasing land that is in the path of development could solve their difficulties.

However, the manuscript is not just precious, but possibly one of a kind. It should be part of the research of the college. And the land deal seems rather shady. Also, the Warden is missing, and someone seems to be trying to rig the vote by scaring off or downright murdering the possible voters until he gets the desired result.

The college thinks that Peter will just come down to Oxford and make their decision, for or against the sale. They don’t know him at all. He comes down to investigate the circumstances that have led them to this sorry pass, especially the missing Warden. And the increasingly high pile of bodies.

As he delves into the origins of the dispute, he finds that the closed community of the college has nursed long-standing grievances on all sides, and that there may be more than one murderer on the loose.

strong poison by dorothy l sayersEscape Rating A-: In the first Lord Peter and Harriet Vane story, Harriet tells Peter that he has a great talent for “talking piffle”, which he still does, and charmingly so. But he no longer presents himself as a lightweight, even though he does try to conceal his past as a private detective as long as possible.

This story does have the element of a “visit with old friends”, and I would love it just for that. It is marvelous to see how Peter and Harriet (and Bunter) are getting on, 20 years after we first met them. They are parents (Bunter too) their sons are growing up, and the world that they knew in the 1920s (including Bunter’s idea of service) have changed. Those changes are reflected in the way that their children are friends without the same class distinctions that Bunter still feels so strongly.

The case is an absolute hoot. Not only are there the plots and counter-plots among the faculty (I kept thinking of Kissinger’s comment that “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small”) but there are glimpses of real Oxford luminaries, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their set.

The murders all seem to be modeled on cases in Harriet’s novels, many of which were fictionalized versions of Peter’s actual cases. It gives the author a chance to both highlight and poke a little fun at the convolutions of some of the earlier stories.

Even though some of the evildoers are fairly obvious, the reasons behind the whole mess take quite a while to unravel. And it’s an utterly lovely journey.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Remembrance Day – Veterans Day 2012

The holiday we celebrate as Veteran’s Day in the U.S. began as Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries. It is celebrated on November 11, or specifically on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in accordance with the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918.

Nearly a century ago.

It was the last war fought with mounted cavalry. And the first war fought with tanks. It’s also the first war that brought the concept of “shell-shock” into common parlance. Today we call it PTSD.

Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the most popular (and beloved) amateur detectives in mystery, suffered from shell-shock. Just think about that for a minute. The condition was so common that Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote the Wimsey stories during the 1920s through the 1940s, thought nothing of making her hero a victim of this debilitating condition. And she does debilitate Wimsey with it on several occasions in the series.

The Wimsey stories are still worth reading. They offer a marvelous perspective on upper-class life in the 1920s through the 1940s, and the entire series has finally been released as ebooks.

But if you are looking for a 21st century fictional perspective on World War I, particularly of the historical mystery persuasion, take a look at Charles Todd’s two series. Charles Todd is the pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd.

They have two World War I series. The Bess Crawford series, starting with A Duty to the Dead, follows the life and occasional adventures of a combat nurse during the war. Some of the dead bodies that Bess discovers do not die from either natural causes or enemy bullets. But due to Bess’ position as the daughter of a long-serving regular-army colonel, the reader gets a picture of the British Army during the war, and also the Home Front when Bess goes on leave.

Their second, and longer-running series, featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, takes place after the war. But the war is still very much a factor, because Rutledge lives with it every day. He came back from the trenches with shell-shock, and his superiors are always waiting for it to reclaim him. The first book in the series is A Test of Wills.

And for one of the most fascinating perspectives on the First World War, take a look at Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. This is not fiction. This is a book about how history is remembered, and it’s a classic for a reason.