Thrones, Dominations –completed by Jill Paton Walsh

This is going to be long. I read Thrones, Dominations not too long after it first came out; this is a second reading, and first review.

Of Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers “had written six rough chapters, and devised a plot diagram in coloured inks. When sixty years later a brown paper parcel containing a copy of the manuscript turned up in her agent’s safe in London, her literary trustees commissioned Jill Paton Walsh to complete it.”

I don’t know.

No, that’s not true – I do. This is not what fans of Lord Peter wanted or needed. It’s not terrible, but I have seen it referred to – often – as fan-fic. I’m not sure the label exactly fits Thrones, Dominations, but it is like a great many Star Trek novels I read when I was a teenager. In so many of those, it seemed very much as if the writer had a generic science fiction manuscript sitting unsold in his drawer, realized Star Trek novels were big at that time, and changed the names and a handful of other details and got it published as part of the franchise despite barely a hint of knowledge of or similarity to Star Trek as aired on television.

I have little background knowledge of Jill Paton Walsh; I’m not saying that she doesn’t know and love the Lord Peter books as much as any of us.

But I’m tempted to.

Because there are times when Thrones, Dominations feels like it ought to. The characters strike the right chord for a paragraph, a line of narrative just feels good…and then it goes back to the feeling of the alignment being somewhat off. It’s distracting to be wondering throughout the book “was that genuine Sayers or counterfeit?” – hoping in some ways that some of the good lines were JPW, because that would mean she was capable, while knowing given the sheer weight of not-Sayers that it was unlikely. The metaphor that came to me about halfway through (because I do love me a metaphor) was: it’s like meeting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time, and they’ve changed. Now and then as you talk there’s a glimpse of the person you used to be so close to, a spark of what used to be, a connection like the old warmth – and then a minute later you’re sitting with a stranger again. A mostly likeable enough stranger, in a way, but …

A complaint I’ve read about the book, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that JPW seems to have gone back through the existing novels and gathered up minor characters – from Bill Rumm to Uncle Paul (and someone on the LPW group is right – he would not have called him Uncle Pandarus in front of everyone) to Harriet’s friends Sylvia and Eiluned to Gerry and Freddy Arbuthnot, along with references to canon books (far more than I remember Sayers ever using), and tossed it all like fairy dust into the reader’s eyes, hoping for a façade of credibility and/or distraction from the book’s deficiencies. I kept waiting for Miss Climpson. Oh, there she is, and Reggie Pomfret too for heaven’s sake. JPW tried so hard to cram everything into this book that she didn’t spend enough time on anything – including the major characters.

Where there is a plethora of cameo appearances, there is a disturbing dearth of Bunter. In all of the books, Peter was the driving force, and Bunter was the support, the source of sustenance and maintenance (literally). Bunter was Peter’s very subtle and quiet right hand. Where Peter was, there Bunter was, slightly behind and to the left, camera or snifter or exquisitely pressed trousers in hand. I remember his opinion of Harriet being, once he’d had the chance to observe her, approving; I know in Busman’s Honeymoon they worked as a team to look after him behind his back and when he was unable to look after himself. That’s what I want more of. I want to see more of Bunter very quietly providing a prop and guide to Harriet. I want to see him dropping a word in her ear in the discreet and in-so-many-words manner a good servant is such a pro at, a subtle nod to assist her in this new milieu (the role which goes to his hand-picked Mango). I want to see him forming a partnership with Harriet in the looking-after of Lord Peter. He was made very happy by the fact that Harriet made Peter happy. And Harriet liked him for his loyalty and care for Peter, if nothing else. And yet here Peter is largely Bunter-less, or at least Bunter is very silent – presumably they went to France together, but I don’t know if it’s specifically said until they come back together. He has had a handful of lines of dialogue and one scene in which he sat down for a drink and a debriefing with Peter. Not enough. Not nearly enough. I hate it.

Harriet: “Shouldn’t you ask Bunter?” It only took about 215 pages for someone to think of that.

With Meredith Bunter handling general butler duties, our Mervyn’s time should have been rather freed up in a lot of ways. In fact, I’d love to have seen how his adjustments were made: adapting to having his brother underfoot, plus Peter’s former nurse as housekeeper, plus of course Harriet. Basically, more Bunter is needed.

For that matter, there’s surprisingly little Parker, and what there is comes off as … priggish. Despite Harriet, he is primly made to state “I don’t read detective novels” in an affronted tone. His working with Peter feels off; his marriage to Mary didn’t change the way they worked together, why should Peter’s marriage? I don’t like this Charles, what little we see of him. A line from Charles: “It’s like trying to overawe a brick wall”. For the sake of my sanity I have to believe DLS would have come up with something sharper than that.

The Dowager Duchess has always been one of my very favorite people in any book, and … I don’t think this does her justice. She needs to witter away and still under it all be perfectly sensible. She doesn’t witter nearly enough here; there isn’t enough fluff.

Harriet is much too deferential to Peter. When she is with him, she seems to walk on eggshells. When she is not with him, she references him or quotes him in nearly every other sentence. She sounds more like a June Cleaveresque 50’s housewife than an independent woman who very much has her own opinions, thank you very much. And yet then there is the one scene where she has just short of a knock-down drag-out fight with Helen and is unpardonably cruel to her – Harriet! Cruel to Helen! I don’t believe even Helen would have been so evil – get rid of Bunter indeed! – and I don’t think Harriet would have responded the way she does here, justified as she might have been. In other news …why is she supposed to have hired a secretary (Miss Bracy)? She’s written for years without one, quite efficiently. Was she expecting such massive output that she would not be able to keep up with her own typing? It seems in fact to have had a dampening effect … Yes, yes, the marriage, and she’s safe now and doesn’t need to write. The incapacitation brought by happiness, along with the surprising leaning toward tragedy for the new book, is nicely done – unfortunately both are beaten to death.

Also beaten to a pulp is the idea that this is a New Thing for Peter and Harriet. Peter has to adjust to having the woman he has sought after so long, to living with her in a new expansive home and the changes that entails. Harriet has all that to cope with, with the added wrinkle that she is going from one income bracket to very much another, from a flat by herself to a stately home with not only Peter but a staff. From dressing as she pleased and going out when she liked with friends to patronizing a pseudo-French dressmaker and attending Wimsey family affairs. It’s all new to her, every waking moment.

I wonder if this is why JPW chose to stick so much to Harriet’s point of view? We the loyal readers are too familiar with Peter-and-Bunter, and never had much chance to become too familiar with married-Peter-and-Harriet, even less chance than they’ve had themselves. She might have felt safer using eyes we haven’t seen through as much, in a setting which is alien to the character, thereby accounting for any unusual behavior.

In a way this is reflected in Rosamund’s reaction to Peter and Harriet. She thoroughly disliked Peter – though I don’t think he did anything objectionable; to earn her reaction I would have had him being exceptionally smart-ass and dropping g’s – and thought Harriet was down-trodden: the remark about “how he treats his wife”. This could have been good: see how dense the girl is, she doesn’t understand the relationship because her own is so different, so much poorer – but it would have been better to show it during the visit than to just make my eyes go wide by her exclamation after they leave. (May I state for the record that I would give a very great deal to be treated as Peter treats Harriet. Silly cow.)

Most important of all, Peter … I don’t know. There are brief flashes, as I said. Otherwise, I miss him, even though he’s puportedly right there. I disliked the introduction of Mr. Matsu. Of course it’s logical that Peter have a fencing master and a martial arts teacher. But that seemed comic and – I don’t know, Green Hornet. Comic book. More, though: I’ve been reading about writing dialogue lately, and that shed light on the problem here. I think that if you take any of the canon books (yes, I do subtract the JPW books from canon, whatever the Sayers estate might say) and strip the dialogue of all the tags (“Peter said” and “said Harriet” and “replied Parker” and so on), it would not be very hard to pick out the lines spoken by Peter (or Harriet or Parker or Bunter, for that matter). Here … Peter’s dialogue is very generic, and where it’s not it is very similar to lines spoken by Harriet and Parker. Parker at one point calls Peter “uxorious”, which is one of those (*cough*) fifty-dollar words I would expect Peter to fling about just for the sheer joy of it; Parker is quite capable of using the word, but, I would think, less likely – there are several Parker lines which I would have attributed to Peter. And Peter … Peter sounds like just anyone. (And that should not be.)

He has found happiness, a deep and solid source of joy in his life. I would have expected an increase in piffle, if anything. Is it that JPW can’t piffle? Or she thinks that with joy comes maturity? The playful side to Peter is entirely missing here – and dammit, that’s part of the reason readers – and Harriet – fell in love with him. “I told Jerry once I was tempted to marry you just to hear you spouting nonsense.” Right. (And yet Harriet at one point says, “Dearest, it is sometimes exceptionally hard to tell if you are fooling about or being deadly serious.” Um – duh?)

Another line that jarred, from Peter: “New York would be more her scene”. Not withstanding that this is part of a conversation with Harriet about getting one of his former mistresses (a Jewish woman) out of Europe while it’s possible – let me repeat, a conversation with Harriet about one of his former mistresses – “her scene”? Really? I don’t know the etymology of “scene” in this context, but it feels very fifties or sixties, and moreover feels very out of place coming from Lord Peter Wimsey. Dig it?

I didn’t believe it when Gerald called him “Flim”. Otherwise Gerald was all right; no complaints. I wasn’t sure about Jerry; my gut reaction is no. (A Gerald moment that left me clueless – Gerald: “I’ve been planting oaks in Boulter’s Hollow.” Oaks!)

From JPW: “I had expected to find it very difficult to work with someone else’s characters, and yet to my amazement it turned out to be much easier than writing about my own.” That worries me.

Something that bothered me inordinately was the amount – and quality – of sex in the book. The Harwells’ passage near the beginning consists largely of him thinking about having to overcome her frigidity every time he wanted to bed her, and then her thinking about his overcoming her and bedding her. Peter comes home from France and celebrates “his return in the fashion of the Duke of Marlborough getting back from the wars” (which I had to look up), and Harriet eyes the glow about him the next morning with that in mind. There’s more – much more – and where in any other book it wouldn’t even be the equivalent of a light breeze, here it ruffles my feathers. Even circumspect as it is, it’s more blunt than was DLS’s wont, and more crude. (“The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top-boots.” (Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough) Peter wore his boots to bed? And she, or Bunter if he went upstairs, didn’t take them off?)

I don’t remember any of the canon books (though I suppose I should consider this canon) spending this much time away from the main cadre of Peter, Harriet, Bunter, Parker, and – as required – Miss Climpson. Here chapters are spent with the soon-to-be victim, entirely apart.

Another dead horse beaten almost beyond recognition: in the space of a handful of pages, Peter talks about how little he likes motives, how little he trusts them, how a motive can always be discovered once you’ve determined the how and the who … and then he says it all again. Within I’d say a hundred pages he says it all over, almost verbatim. Bad. Very bad.

To Harriet: “I don’t propose to show you anything gruesome”. Honey, this is the woman who found the body on the Flatiron. Not that she enjoys the gruesome, but she’s no shrinking violet either. Patronizing jerk. (And that Peter should not be.)

Harriet and Mango (I have an Issue with “Mango” as a name) both perk up when a detail of the body’s clothing is mentioned, and Harriet starts to say “Peter, was she wearing …” – and is cut off. And ignored. I’m sorry, she wouldn’t stand for that. It was important – and in fact the solution partially hinged on the information. She would say something, and make it heard, then and not pages and pages later. And when she does mention it the assumption is that she was redressed, not the more obvious answer. Occam’s Razor, people.

Peter, re Charles: “It’s late and he’s a family man”. Really? And you think he’ll thank you for a sleepless night thinking about the case when you could have given him that information earlier?

Harriet and Peter eating at opposite ends of the table – I don’t believe it. Peter has a wide traditional streak, yes. But I would picture him coming in the first morning for breakfast, and sitting a mile and a half away from her, and giving an exclamation of disgust and picking up his plate and moving on down next to her. It’s a stupid tradition, and Peter isn’t stupid: he’s in love, and would want to spend as much time as close to her as possible. He fought for her. He won her. He has her. I don’t believe that this would be one of the times he would go all Lord Peter. This is why Harriet and Peter’s discussion about drainage and decomposition was so lovely, and such a relief for being so lovely. That was just as it should be … briefly.

The “scissors moment” of the book was depressingly clearly telegraphed. I saw it coming so far off. (“Scissors moment” is what it’s always called on the Yahoo Lord Peter Group: In the short story “The Footsteps That Ran” it is illustrated by looking at the letters “ciorssss” and finding no meaning until the letters just jump around in the brain and “scissors” becomes clear: the “Aha!” moment.)

The quotes and allusions are even more aggressively obscure to … well, to me at least than any Dorothy L. Sayers ever used. I like that Peter and Harriet are able to volley them comfortably back and forth – they always did. But I don’t remember the tags ever putting my nose out of joint quite like this before. (Which could be because I’ve read the books so many times – but I don’t think so.) (I’m still trying to figure out what exactly is meant by “Peter dislikes women with green fingernails” – perhaps a reference to Picasso?)

This is a spoiler, of sorts, but not if you’ve read the canon stories:
One huge complaint, loud and irritated: Oh, come on, really? Harriet is vomiting randomly and someone actually tells “You’re looking well … Positively glowing”? Oh – spare me. Isn’t there some way of hinting a woman’s pregnant without using clichés that have been beaten to death in every cheesy novel and tv show since time began? Even if I didn’t know about Bredon and young Peter and company that very first scene of Harriet sprinting off to be sick – and then feeling just fine shortly after – would have pinged the radar. Spare me.

One thing I can’t argue with is Harriet’s conversation with Hope about painting versus photography. When I was in art school, I had a class which devoted the entire term to one painting: a trompe l’oiel. I was trying to explain the concept to my brother, and his response was “Why don’t you just take a picture?” And I honestly couldn’t put an answer into words. This was quite good, and nicely supplies the words … about twenty years too late, but what’s in that.

Unfortunately, a handful of pages later the ground the author gained with that discussion is severely dented in several places as the artist Chapparelle (I kept having trouble reconciling that name with a French artist and not some figure out of a Western) tells Harriet about how Harwell has picked up the painting of his wife. “I told him the varnish was not quite dry … If it had stayed I would perhaps have touched up some things more a little.” I cried foul, and did some research to see if I was right. I’m no expert here, and who knows, maybe he was using acrylics … Ah. No. Acrylic paint was not invented till the end of the 40’s. So Chapparelle was using oils. And there are two things I know about varnish and oils: you do not varnish an oil painting, not with a finishing varnish, until it is completely dry, and it takes a minimum of six months for an oil painting to dry. Rosamund had not started sitting with Chapparelle until well after Helen’s dinner for them, and if eight months to a year went by it seriously undermines the whole “gosh but this is a new situation and it still feels alien” thing Harriet is going through. In fact, JPW’s quote from DLS’s own notes for the book is “Start in January, before the King’s death because of clothes”. The King died January 20. So … bare weeks. (Wow, he’s a hellish fast painter as well as hellish good; that’s quite rushed for a portrait, and depending on what pigments he used might not even be hand-dry – therefore unvarnishable even with a retouching varnish.) And you can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) go back in and touch things up once a painting has been varnished. Can I just say that the woman who used an artistic detail as the lynchpin for The Five Red Herrings would not have screwed that up.

The first irritated and provoked word to come to mind regarding the mystery’s solution is, I’m afraid, dumb-ass. Here be spoilers…

In a second …

Look away now if you don’t want to see ’em …

OK. The solution to the mystery is that Harwell accidentally strangled Rosamund, put the mask over her face to hide the swelling and discoloration, and realized the little poet person, Amery, was peeping through windows. Harwell then– anguished and shocked and guilt-ridden and all as he was – thought nothing of hauling her body into the sitting room or whichever, securing the mask with the silly collar, and propping her up where Amery would see her when he peered in the window before haring off to establish his alibi. (Some mention of Harriet sadly boxing up her collars might be nice at the end, and wouldn’t she feel guilty about having given them to Rosamund, or at least squicky about wearing them?) And I’m sorry, here it all falls apart, if it wasn’t already crumbly. Let’s say for some reason Amery didn’t do any peeping at all in the period of time it took Harwell to set things up – how would Harwell know? Did he close the drapes for a few minutes and then open them again like a stage curtain? Allowing that, though, here is where Amery should have gazed in, rapping away at the door, and at some point said “I say! Rosamund isn’t blinking! Even she can’t stay that still for that long!” If, instead of apparently being full on as it apparently was the corpse was turned perhaps halfway away, so that Amery could see the cloud of distinctive hair and perhaps see the curve of the cheek of the mask and imagine the cold and mocking smile – I could swallow that. Perhaps if a very decided point was made that Amery was very nearsighted, or that the room was very dim and the only light came from the candles on the table or the fire across the room, maybe I could swallow that. Firelight flickering on satin might give the illusion of breath, and over the mask might give the illusion she had blinked. But Amery being fooled by peering into a room where his beloved sat dead wearing a mask of her own likeness, facing him full on, is too much to swallow. The mask shouldn’t have fit very well – there’s a fair amount of facial swelling, I understand, when someone is strangled; unless a cast was taken of her face it wouldn’t be exact to start with; the artist who created it would be world famous if he was that accurate; I would fully expect the mask to slip, particularly when the hand dropped to the side of the chair. That would have to cause a slight jolt throughout the corpse.

Also, I have wandered the internet trying to find out when detectives and doctors (and police surgeons) became aware of lividity (livor mortis) and learned to use it as evidence. The CSI TV series may be the cheesiest of pop science, but it has its moments: from that source I know that blood pools in a corpse, and if the body is moved within a certain period after death the discoloration will not match the body’s new position. In other words, if the blood pooled in Rosamund’s corpse while Harwell had her establishing his alibi in the chair, which considering she was sat there for quite a while as he dashed about, then the lividity would not agree with a body strangled and left supine.

It’s just … dumb. I have an image of Dorothy L. watching aghast from the afterlife, shouting “No! That’s why I abandoned the silly story! I put it aside until I thought of a solution that wasn’t that moronic!” I didn’t figure it out even in this reread, because if I’d thought of it I would have dismissed the idea as too damn stupid.

I don’t know if it’s a red (or red-haired) herring (or a gun of Chekhov’s), but the fact that the actress who is killed, Phoebe Sugden, has hair described very similarly to Rosamund’s should have been capitalized on. If it was her sitting in that chair with the mask on it might have been better. He kills Rosamund – perhaps breaking her neck, making it impossible to pass her off as alive, given the, er, floppiness of the head – and bursts out into the cool night air to try to pull himself together, and to escape from the presence of the corpse; and the first thing he sees is a girl with a cloud of red-blonde hair; he seizes her, in a fever of deluded hopefulness – he didn’t kill her! Here she is! Rose! But it isn’t, it’s Phoebe Sugden aka Glora Tallant, and she’s upset, and in his brainstorm he tries to quiet her and kills her in the process. And now he’s got two corpses. And he runs his hands through the new dead girl’s hair, so much like Rosamund’s (maybe he teased his wife about how that shade of hair was becoming popular in the theatre; “I can’t act” being countered with “Neither can the Sugden girl, but that hasn’t stopped her trying!”) and has a desperate idea. But no, she was just a loose end that needed tying, and was dumped into the sewers. If you’re not going to use it – even as a red herring – why make her hair the exact same color as the victim’s?

I’d give my left ear to see how DLS would have finished the book. (Perhaps the right, in honor of Van Gogh.) For that matter I’d like to see the manuscript she left. I wonder if Laurie R. King would be susceptible to bribery to do a Lord Peter novel. I’d also sacrifice an ear to know how DLS would have handled the announcement that Harriet is pregnant. (Not, preferably, giving up both ears at once, however.)

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2 Responses to Thrones, Dominations –completed by Jill Paton Walsh

  1. Lizzie Harris says:

    I realize this is a very old post, but I stumbled across it on Goodreads and I just wanted to say “Bless you.” (I just finished Thrones, Dominations for the first time).

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