THE LATE SCHOLAR by Jill Paton Walsh

DSC_0161ISBN 978 1 444 76087 3

Paperback £8.99

I have always been a huge fan of the classic crime stories. When I was very young I devoured Sherlock Holmes, whose only failing was, so far as I could see, that he didn’t have more adventures. While I have read some continuation stories by other writers, none appeared to me to be convincing, sadly.

After Holmes, I progressed to Agatha Christie. These were a source of great delight because of the careful plotting. However her stories never fired me as much as those of Conan-Doyle. With Holmes there was perfect plotting and a fabulous character who pulled the reader in. Each new victim or criminal was compelling and convincing, whereas Christie’s characters were vapid by comparison. Yes, her middle-class folks had motives and opportunities, but no souls. I think this is partly why so many actors want to play her characters on film and TV. They have empty vessels which they can imbue with life.

For me, Dorothy Sayers’ books were more like Conan-Doyle’s. Her characters were realistic, believable, full of life and with plots that were exquisite. Simple stories gained hugely from the main character of Peter Wimsey and his wife, and the various suspects were all depicted with a delicate touch. From vagrants to shell-shocked ex-soldiers to artistic ladies, all are recognisable and believable.

Which is why I picked up THE LATE SCHOLAR with some trepidation.

I shouldn’t have been concerned. Jill Paton Walsh falls into this period with ease. Her style is remarkably similar to the later period of Dorothy L Sayers, and she gives (I imagine) an accurate feel for the period.

The story seems very simple at first. Lord Peter (who is now Duke of Denver) is contacted by St Severin’s College in Oxford. Unbeknown to him, his title confers upon him responsibility as Visitor to St Severin’s, and thus he is the ultimate adjudicator in any little disputes.

But just now the dispute is not so small. Half the fellows want to sell an ancient document of Boethius, which is unremarkable but which is rumoured to have been used by King Alfred. However, there is no proof that the King ever handled this and added the glosses which medievalists so revere. However, near to Oxford itself is a large tract of land, which has been offered very cheaply to the college. With this land, the college could expand, but also they could build housing for profit that would help rescue the fellows from an approaching calamity. They have no cash.

Strong feelings have erupted around this. Half the fellows want to sell the Boethius and use the money to buy the land, while the remainder believe that to sell that document would destroy any reputation for academic rigour the college ever held.

With the vote finely balanced, the Warden holds the casting vote. But he has disappeared. And fellows arguing on both sides have died. It seems certain that the fellows have been murdered. And then comes the biggest shock: the fellows are dying in ways that bear an uncanny resemblance to the deaths depicted in Harriet Vane’s detective stories.


It’s a good read. I enjoyed it. And yet … it has to work on so many levels.

So, first of all, the big question: was I able to forget that this book was not written by Dorothy L Sayers? No. Every so often I’d think I could hear the distant tone of Ian Carmichael’s voice in the Duke’s voice, but then something would distract me and I’d remember this was written by another author. However, this was not fair. This is a book bringing to life a period considerably after the Lord Peter I know. He has changed, as has Harriet, and the period is different too. They should have changed, and I think Jill Paton Walsh has done a marvellous job of taking them forward.

If you like the stories of the golden age of detective fiction, you should like this, I think. It’s convoluted , but satisfying. Yes, if you’re a died-in-the-wool Sayers fan you will find little glitches that may jar, but I think that the journey itself makes it worthwhile.

So, on balance, this one’s a good read and recommended.

One Response to “THE LATE SCHOLAR by Jill Paton Walsh”
  1. Old Trooper says:

    Your assessment, Michael, of Walsh’s ability to carry on the Sayer’s writing tradition is spot on. I have truly enjoyed Sayer’s and found that the Sayer estate was fortunate, as well as readers, to find someone truly capable of carrying on the quality and tradition of such fine writing.


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