Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds

Bare days after Lord Peter Wimsey recounts to his wife Harriet the story of his first effort as a detective, the finding of the Earl of Attenbury's missing emerald some 30 years before, the current Earl comes to him for help in resolving a problem: the provenance of the emerald, kept safely in a bank vault, is now under dispute, as someone else is claiming ownership.  If it is the same emerald, how can that be proven?  If it has been switched for another, similar stone, who can have done it and when, and where is Attenbury's jewel?  And are the seemingly random, apparently accidental deaths that have occurred every time the emerald was removed from the bank actually cases of murder?

Hard to believe it's 12 years now since Jill Paton Walsh took the fragments of Dorothy Sayers' last, unfinished Lord Peter story and published Thrones, Dominations with the approval of Sayers' literary executors.  A subsequent Peter and Harriet novel, A Presumption of Death, also built on Sayers' own work in "The Wimsey Papers," short pieces published during World War II.  This new one, The Attenbury Emeralds, appears to be all Paton Walsh.  I've had mixed reactions to this kind of pastiche ever since I first ran across The Seven Per Cent Solution, but I think I've finally figured out how to enjoy them without fretting over the differences from the original works: I just regard them as fan fiction.*  And this is really good fanfic, let me tell you.

The mystery is intriguing and multi-layered, the characters are charming in just the right way, and Paton Walsh has a very nice touch with the tone: a light surface shading into darker undertones.  It has made me decide to go back and read all of Sayers' own Lord Peter stories.  Recommended for fans of the character.

*When Neil Gaiman was asked if his Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Emerald," made him a fanfic writer, he thought it over and replied that no, it made him a Hugo-Award-winning fanfic writer.  Love that man.

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