Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds – Jill Paton-Walsh

First things first – it’s only fair under the circumstances to give some context to the depth of my affection for Dorothy L. Sayers, especially the books with Harriet and Peter. Going back through the mists of time to 1987 and the BBC series that ran ‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have His Carcase’ and ‘Gaudy Night’, I fell completely in love with Miss Sayers creations getting the books just as soon as I could. I was 13, it was Dorothy L. Sayers who made me determined to go to university (Oxford naturally, although my mother favoured Cambridge because she felt it had better tea shops, and I ended up in Aberdeen which suited me so well I didn’t notice the tea shops or lack thereof). It was also Dorothy who instilled in me a desire for silk pyjamas, my own library, and a flat decorated in soothing shades of grey.

As you’ve probably guessed I read these books at an impressionable age and they didn’t fail to make an impression. The non Harriet novels not so much but every 13 year old girl (presumably) likes a love story and a feisty heroine. When Jill Paton-Walsh completed Sayers unfinished novel ‘Thrones, Dominations’ I really couldn’t tell the difference between the two writers and was happy to accept this new addition to the canon. I don’t think I’ve read the second book Paton-Walsh wrote (‘A Presumption of Death’) but (and it was almost certainly the mention of emeralds in the title) I quite fancied reading this one despite my oft mentioned distrust of writers taking on other peoples characters.

Unfortunately ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ released my inner pedant (never on a very tight leash anyway), and once you start picking holes everything starts to unravel. It wasn’t a plotting problem – a mystery solved, unsolved, and resolved is what it says on the cover and what it does in the book. The original case of the Attenbury Emeralds is one of Lord Peter’s first and here he’s telling the story to Harriet, now 30 years later the emeralds new owner needs to prove their provenance which turns out to be no simple matter.

My problem with the book comes down to the never explain, never apologise principle. Frequently bad advice but when it comes to recreating the past (or much loved characters) it should be the rule to live by (says I). I imagine that the majority of people buying this book – especially in hardback – are doing it because they already know Sayers’ books. We’re already familiar with Peter’s back story and shell shock issues, bringing it up again didn’t feel natural. Neither did all the explanations about the aristocracy ostensibly for Harriet’s benefit; the fascination for a title has never gone away, not even in detective fiction as Elizabeth George’s inspector Lynley shows.

After that mentions of Elizabeth David’s new book and the upcoming festival of Britain jarred a little because they didn’t feel like part of the flow of the plot. However the biggest sticking point was over manners and mannerisms. Everybody seemed so keen to apologise for being upper class, the oldest Whimsy boy calls Bunter (Lord Peter’s man) Mervyn but I can’t believe that an Eton educated child would ever exhibit such a breach of etiquette in his father’s house, or show Labour tendencies, or... but I won’t harp on in this vein because you either let these details bother you (as I sadly do) or you don’t.

In the end what it comes down to is probably this. Dorothy L. Sayers was clearly more than a little bit in love with her Lord Peter, and I like to think that Harriet is more than a little bit of Sayers. There is a chemistry in those books that was and is irresistible to me. Jill Patton-Walsh clearly has a great deal of affection for Harriet and Peter but I feel she treats them like slightly elderly relations who can’t be trusted not to say something outrageously un pc.

However I enjoyed getting slightly annoyed by what I saw as inconsistencies almost as much as I would have appreciated a production I regarded as flawless, and I’ll be looking out for Jill Paton-Walsh’s other books to see what she’s like on her own ground as well as going back (again) to Miss Sayers so all’s well that ends well...


  1. You're very brave, reading sequels by other authors - I am far too grouchy and fly into a rage if anything deviates from what I consider to be the 'right' tone or character. It seems to me to be extra problematic when the sequels are written so many years later than the originals. I suppose it just all feels too inauthentic to me (can fiction be inauthentic?).

    And don't say 'Wide Sargasso Sea' please! (I shall just insist it's an exception to the rule, not proof that I'm writing rubbish.)

    As for JP-W's other books, I read 'Knowledge of Angels' ages and ages ago and have forgotten much about it except that I thought it very good. Don't know why I haven't read any more of hers.

  2. I have read a few of JPW's non-Sayers novels and I think she is an excellent writer. I'd be curious to read one of this series, but not this one!

  3. I think I did read the two earlier Sayer sequels by JPW and thought they were alright, although I can't remember much of them. I'd still like to read this one though as I too love both Peter Wimsey and especially Harriet. What a cool woman.

  4. I wish I could read books like this in the spirit in which they're intended. I always start out thinking this is fun, before getting caught up in little details.

  5. Kate's House of AnimalsJune 29, 2013 at 12:09 AM

    Have only just caught up with this book 2 years after publication & although I enjoyed it, I do share Desperate Reader's frustration with the incidental details. Any book set in 'real time' loses credibility if it doesn't mention national events which everyone would have known about. To provide vague scene-setting by introducing the Festival of Britain, the London smog, Elizabeth David & the New Look really isn't enough when 2 major events – the general election in autumn 1951 (just a few days before the devastating fire at Duke's Denver) which returned a Conservative government under Winston Churchill, and the death of King George VI in February 1952 – are completely ignored. There was a golden opportunity to link both events to Peter's and Harriet's own experience and it was missed. Perhaps I am too pernickety, but I think it's a shame not to try harder to make the evocation of a particular period of history convincing.