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Book Report: A Presumption of Death

Your Humble Blogger came across the Wimsey Papers a while ago. I hadn’t known that Jill Paton Walsh had used them as a jumping-off point for her Peter Wimsey book A Presumption of Death. The book is ... well, do you know how sometimes I describe a perfect book by saying that it couldn’t possibly be any better without being a good deal worse? This book couldn’t have been any worse without having been a great deal better. For one thing, if it had been worse, perhaps I wouldn’t have finished it. For another, a significantly worse book would have botched its attempts at evoking English Country Life During WWII. Not that this book portrays ECLDWWII all that well, but it evokes other books (and films) which portray it very well indeed.

Also, Ms. Paton Walsh neither gets Lord and Lady Peter completely wrong (which would have been easily dismissed) nor entirely right (which might well be satisfying). Instead she shows an older, somewhat changed Lord and Lady Peter, and then talks about how they have grown and changed. Talks at some length about it. This is, in some ways, entertainingly provocative, as it leads to a sort of reader’s argument about whether the changes are plausible, or pleasurable, or permissible. But then, it’s also pretty annoying. The plot is pretty shabby, but much in the vein of Dorothy Sayers’ plots, so that’s not really here nor there.

Of course, as much as people who like Lord Peter like Lord-Peter-Books, it’s difficult to decide exactly what constitutes a Lord-Peter-Book. Busman’s Honeymoon is nothing like Gaudy Night, which is nothing like Have His Carcass. The non-Harriet ones are more similar, one to another, except that they aren’t, really. Clearly, the thing that makes a Lord Peter book a Lord-Peter-Book is that it has a lot of Lord Peter in it. The problem, though, for an extension such as Ms. Paton Walsh has been doing, is that Lord Peter changes a lot once he meets (and falls for) Harriet. That’s what makes Gaudy Night so moving, and makes Busman’s so satisfying. So a Lord Peter who ages but doesn’t change would be ... unsatisfying. This, to digress some more, is what makes Laurie R. King’s books with Sherlock Holmes palatable: Holmes doesn’t change in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but Ms. King’s Holmes is not Mr. Conan Doyle’s Holmes, and is not meant to be.

Anyway, one could imagine a novel set in, oh, 1926 or so, with Lord Peter and Bunter at investigating crime. I imagine it would be entertaining, if at all, only as an exercise; what would be entertaining would be to see how well the writer imitated the original. The last time Your Humble Blogger attempted to write science fiction (within the meaning of the act), it was an idea for a short story of spaceships and adventure told in the voice of a Damon Runyon character, only (as it turned out) the story was told by an old space lag who along with his buddies had adopted the vocal mannerisms of the old stories, not from the old stories, but from an old space lag who had told the old stories as if they were his. I think my old pirate called himself Big Julie, but I don’t recall, and whatever was typed is mercifully lost to time and floppy disks. At any rate, I was able to imitate Mr. Runyon to my satisfaction, but having done so, had no story worth telling. That effort was much worse than A Presumption of Death, and therefore much better, as no-one ever has to read it.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,