The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
The Late Scholar starts off with a post-WWII Lord Peter, now Duke of Denver, at home some time after the events of The Attenbury Emeralds, which elevated him to the Dukedom. Peter has been called on to fulfill one of the lesser known, hereditary duties of the Duke of Denver, that of visitor to St. Severin’s College at Oxford. (I had to look up what a Visitor was, but it seems, within the context of the story to be a mostly ceremonial role.) The college is torn. A parcel of land has become available to them, which could be developed or held and sold at a great profit in the future. However, to raise the money for this sale a valuable and ancient manuscript from the College library would have to be sold. The matter has been put to a vote twice already with the Warden of the college casting his deciding vote for the status quo, to retain the manuscript.
However, the third vote is coming up and the Warden has taken an unexpected and unannounced sabbatical. Peter has been called in to decide the matter in his capacity as the visitor. However, before he can even leave home for the trip to Oxford he receives news that one of the dons has died in a tragic accident. Further investigation shows that two other dons have had near escapes, which everyone also puts down to accident. Peter, however, notices that each of the three incidents bears a striking resemblance to deaths in previous cases of his, cases which have been detailed in Harriet’s mystery novels.
It suddenly elevates this from a simple academic dispute over a rather dodgy land venture into a case of murder. Bodies continue to pile up as Peter and Harriet investigate.
Bunter is, naturally in a Lord Peter Whimsy mystery, an integral part of the investigation. Both the Dowager Duchesses make an appearance. Helen, the somewhat loathsome widow of Gerald, is her usual self, while Honoria, Peter’s mother, continues to be delightful.
I am a long time Lord Peter Whimsy fan. I’ve read all of his adventures, seen all the television adaptations, listened to all of the audiobooks. So when a new Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery is announced I get both excited and trepedatious. The Late Scholar, the fourth Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery from Jill Paton Walsh is a solid, workmanlike addition to the series. It isn’t going to take anyone by storm, but it doesn’t let one down either.
This does seem, rather, to damn the book with faint praise, but that is not its intention. I enjoyed The Late Scholar, but I did not keep it in my library to reread as I have the original Dorothy Sayers volumes, and even the first two of Walsh’s contributions to the series. It is, perhaps, a library book, rather than a purchase. If you love it more than I did then there will always be time to pick it up from your local bookstore in the future. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal had a glowing review.
I attribute my feelings to two things. First, this book seemed slightly more contrived than previous iterations. The murder methods are taken from previous cases of Peter’s, which is a nice nod to long time fans, but at the same time is a gimmick seen over and over again. The first episode of Castle springs immediately to mind. Also, Harriet is a mystery novelist in her own right. I don’t know how I feel about the notion of her recycling Peter’s old cases to get material.
Second, I have read and reread a mystery set in the 1920’s that has a few superficial resemblances to this story. It’s also set at a college and there is also a medieval manuscript peripherally connected to the case. Despite the two novels being entirely distinct, I couldn’t help but compare them in my mind.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the novel, because I did and I do recommend it to fans of Lord Peter or the classic, Crime Queen era of British mystery fiction. But, I think if I were to re-read one of the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mysteries I would take myself back to Thrones, Dominations or A Presumption of Death.