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THE LATE SCHOLAR by Jill Paton Walsh: Book Review

Is it blasphemy for me to say that I enjoyed The Late Scholar, a novel by Jill Paton Walsh based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers, more than the works of Ms. Sayers herself? 

Decades ago, I read all of the original Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories and enjoyed them.  But trying to re-read them years later, I couldn’t do it.  They seemed so dated, so annoying to me, that I soon gave up and put them in a mental bookcase along with the works of Freeman Wills Crofts, Gladys Mitchell, Father Reginald Knox, and other Golden Age mystery writers whose works are no longer read by many fans of the genre.

That being said, Lord Peter has survived better than most of his generation, and he has been wonderfully revived, and to my mind greatly improved, by Jill Paton Walsh.  The fourth book in Ms. Walsh’s series brings Peter, now the Duke of Denver due to the death of his older brother, and his wife Harriet Vane to 1953.

The dukes of the Wimsey family have been Visitors for St. Severin’s College, Oxford dating back to the seventeenth century, and now Peter must take on that responsibility.  One of the Visitor’s duties is to act as the arbiter when the Warden (dean) and the Fellows of the College cannot agree on an issue.  This is currently the case, for Lord Peter has been called to St. Severin’s to decide an urgent matter.  The College has a manuscript ascribed to King Alfred the Great, and it has caused a great division among the members of the college.

The college is in dire financial straits, and one group of the Fellows believes that the only way to obtain sufficient funds is to sell the manuscript.  By doing this, St. Severin’s would have the money to buy a large tract of land nearby, which they would then be able to sell later at a large profit and thus secure the finances of the college.  The problem is that an equal number of Fellows are opposed to selling the work; vote after vote has resulted in a tie.  The Warden would normally cast the deciding vote, but now the Warden is missing.  Thus the need for the Visitor to decide the issue.

So Peter, Harriet, and Bunter leave home and head to the college, only to encounter several deaths that seem to be related to the manuscript.  But can such high feelings actually be due to a manuscript a thousand years old, Peter wonders.  Or is there a more mundane reason for the emotions and deaths at St. Severin’s?

Jill Paton Walsh has done a wonderful job in bringing Dorothy L. Sayers’ characters into the second half of the twentieth century without losing what made them significant in the first place.  She has made them stronger, more believable, and, to my mind, more interesting than they were before.  The Late Scholar is an excellent addition to the Lord Peter Wimsey series.

You can read more about Jill Paton Walsh at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.






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