The Late Scholar – Jill Paton Walsh

It will not be a surprise to many that – yep, this is a long one.

There’s a masochistic tendency in me that I never suspected. Why else would I keep reading what basically amounts to terrible fan fiction about some of my favorite characters? What is this compulsion that makes me keep getting, and reading, these books even though I know it’s not going to be pretty?

Because this is classic bad fan fiction, in which the author pulls elements from all the canon works and tries to take ownership of them. It’s not always awful, mind you, if the fan author really knows her thing and loves the original source material and, you know, has some skill and a good idea. None of this applies to Jill Paton Walsh’s “Lord Peter” books, and they’re terrible.

Maybe it’s just the enduring wish for more Lord Peter Wimsey. JPW was tapped by the estate. She’s an established author in her own right. It should be good. Dammit.

I went into this unspoiled, and this resulted in increasing nausea and irritation – so allow me to spoil you: Lord Peter is called to look into a number of murders and other unpleasant events which have been taking place at and around Oxford which echo some of his cases (although it seems to take Peter and Harriet a remarkably long time to twig to this idea, and they seem remarkably sanguine about it when it finally gels), which Harriet has over the years recycled into novels.

‘If the two strange incidents were attempted murders, then the murder methods…’
‘Are from cases of yours…’ she said.
‘Which you have used in detective stories,’ he finished.
‘Well, after all, Peter,’ she said defensively, ‘the very first time you proposed to me you offered as an inducement your ability to provide plots for me.’

I need to stop right there and express my disgust with this. Whatever I might think of JPW rehashing all of Lord Peter’s cases, Harriet, like JPW, was an established author before Lord Peter came along. She came up with plots all by her little self. Sure, it would be crazy not to make use of Peter’s history and knowledge in her writing – but the idea that she “borrowed” his casebook wholesale, basically standing in for DLS and fictionalizing real cases, is wholly and utterly abhorrent to me. She wouldn’t do it – and Peter wouldn’t want her to. Come on – seriously? The way he felt about the consequences faced by the killers he caught, how could he ever countenance those stories to be turned into potboiler mystery novels? No. Just no.

(I wonder about this Harriet’s ability. She mention’s “death by sword thrust in my detective story Blades of Hatred”, relating it to a current cut throat. 1. A sword thrust ≠ cut throat. 2. That’s a really terrible title.)

While Harriet uses Lord Peter to augment her voice, JPW seems to use Harriet to express a few feelings of her own.

‘And the review was unfavourable, I take it?’ asked Harriet. Gervase seemed to be pondering how to answer. ‘After all, though people do take issue with favourable reviews now and then, they don’t cause much heat as a rule,’ Harriet prompted him.
‘It was unfavourable,’ said Gervase, ‘but unfavourable hardly covers it. It was savage; gleefully exposing errors – alleged errors I should say – and holding the author up to ridicule – ridicule hardly covers it either – accusing him of stupidity and ignorance, and saying it was shameful that such a person should hold an Oxford fellowship or make himself out to be any kind of scholar; it went on in that vein over the page. You get the impression.’
… …
‘I’m amazed that the TLS published this,’ said Peter. ‘It’s actionable.’
‘Reviewing, however harshly, counts as fair comment,’ Harriet said.
‘Yes – but this goes beyond commenting on the book and comments on the possible motives of the writer. I’m amazed they let it pass.’
… …
But it is in fact easy to tell when a reviewer is motivated by spite or private axe-grinding. When once that had happened to her she had found herself blithely rising above it; only a reasoned and reasonable assessment of her work had power to hurt; a vendetta could be ignored.
… …
She had once had a severe ticking-off in the Manchester Guardian, in a long review of Murder by Degrees which had stretched down the page. Several friends had congratulated her on it. When she told her publisher about this, deeply baffled, he had replied, ‘My dear, never read the things, just measure the column inches!’

Gosh. Is this a commentary on real-life reviewers who expose errors, accuse authors of ignorance, and question authors’ motivation? Believe me, nothing I’m writing here or in other critical reviews is in a gleeful spirit.

‘I should think it’s much easier to mount attacks on people if the piece is unattributed,’ said Peter. ‘One would think twice about what one said if the words stood above one’s signature.’
‘That’s the whole point, I think,’ said Harriet. ‘That it enables comment without fear or favour.’

Ah – the plot thins. Not just reviewers are evil, but particularly anonymous reviewers.

‘Usually anger and indignation at hostile reviews rage impotently in the void; but once one knew who the reviewer was…’

I’m me, out in the open; that’s my name up there. Message me, go on.

I find it hard to be gleeful when characters I’ve known and loved since I was twelve years old are rendered as ill-formed facsimiles. These people don’t talk like those people. “‘Oh, jolly D,’ said Peter duplicitously” – apparently this was a not-uncommon exclamation, but I’ve never heard of it in my life, and I don’t see Peter saying it. He wouldn’t say “Like totally cool”, either. “‘You are quite right, Harriet. I apologise. It’s the piffle habit again.'” This is something I seem to recall from the other books – Peter apologizing (or being upbraided) for the piffle. Which is outrageous. For Peter to be made to feel repentant about piffling is like da Vinci feeling apologetic for doodling.

‘Oh, but now I have met you, Harriet, of course I shall read you,’ said George.
‘That’s such an odd reason for wanting to read a book,’ said Harriet. ‘If you meet a brilliant doctor, George, do you wish to contract the disease they specialise in?’

That’s a non sequitur, and nothing I can imagine Harriet (being a woman of sense) saying, and is therefore another irritant in a book full of them.

These people don’t act like those people.

“[Bunter] himself, she knew, thought [sitting to dinner with LPW and family] improper and it made him slightly uncomfortable; he did it only because he knew that she preferred it. This was a form of selfishness in her, she thought, a lack of true courtesy…”

I don’t see Peter ever allowing this, if he knew it made Bunter uncomfortable. And in the area of dealing with servants, even Bunter, Harriet would defer to Peter.

Speaking of Peter: he makes a major mistake, apparently, and it results in harm. Why would you do that to him? It’s not like him; it is the sort of thing this character would lie awake at night over for the rest of his natural life. It’s not a good storytelling decision, in my (very strong) opinion.

“Peter had become very flushed during this account. Harriet, almost shaking with rage herself, recognised this as anger.”

WELL DONE! She’s so observant, this Harriet.

And my final two-word piece of evidence that these characters’ behavior is … off: “Peter trotted”.

No.

So I do rather wonder at JPW’s motivation. I know better than to dismiss her as a NARF (“not a real fan”) – but it’s hard to think of her as a fan on the same level as my friends and I are. No one I know would do these things to Peter. (For my own future reference if nothing else, here is the JPW quote I know I’ll be looking for: “I honestly don’t think Peter is that interesting without Harriet”.)

Even apart from my deep distaste for Harriet cribbing from Peter for her books, there’s another darn good reason this was a bad idea to hang a book on. It could have been done in such a way as to create suspense and propel the plot onward and upward. This was not that. Instead …

‘He’s in the Radcliffe Infirmary’ – here Charles paused for dramatic effect – ‘suffering from arsenic poisoning.’
‘I should have expected that,’ Peter said. ‘I should have known.’

Yes, “Peter” (or whoever you are), you should have known. God knows I did.

The day when my deduction skills are better than Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey’s is … is the day I’m reading a really bad Wimsey pastiche, is what it is.

There is a disappearance in the book, which seems to offer hope of a little fresh life in the plot, separate from all of the recycled canon. But it kind of goes nowhere.

As a novel, this was not terrible. If the main characters’ names had been Lord Robert and his wife Jenny, then I might have enjoyed it – it might be fun as an homage. But the way I rate a book is not on what it might be or how it stacks up to other books in the universe – it’s how well it does what it is supposed to do. A really good urban fantasy can earn five stars and sit on the same shelf as a really good classic mystery (like a Lord Peter), because it excels at what it set out to do. This purports to be a Lord Peter Wimsey novel. As such, it’s very bad indeed.

I was irritated – possibly because I was of a mind to be irritated by everything in this book – by the fact that JPW brought her characters (not DLS’s) to the Eagle and Child, but did not give us a Tolkien cameo. On further thought, however, this is a good thing. The woman has her claws into DLS – I’d rather she kept far, far away from JRRT.

Oh – too late:

‘Have I heard of this misogynist professor?’
‘Didn’t you read The Hobbit to the boys during an air-raid?’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
‘That’s him – the Merton Professor is Tolkien.’

I could easily spend another thousand words disputing the (COMPLETELY UNFOUNDED) tag “misogynist” and defending my other favorite author … but instead I think I’ll just see that little exchange as the last nail in JPW’s coffin for me. No more – that’s it – I’m done. This has been one of those books where rating I gave it initially has been chipped away; I figure if the taste in my mouth that lingers after this much time is this nasty, it’s relevant. I will henceforth make an effort to quash my masochistic streak: no more JPW “Lord Peter”.

I feel better already.

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4 Responses to The Late Scholar – Jill Paton Walsh

  1. Upon reading the bit about Tolkien I felt flushed, which I immediately recognized as anger.

    Thanks for reading JPW so I wouldn’t have to. I fear a library copy would not survive the experience. What with the flinging against suitably hard objects and all. I’ve had similar experiences of rage mixed with a touch of nausea while reading Austen fan fic. It really should be a crime.

  2. stewartry says:

    I read it on Kindle: not recommended, for exactly the same reason. That’s one unforeseen drawback to the Kindle – – wallbangers can’t literally go bang on the wall. This was absolutely it for me – someone else has to fling herself on the next grenade.

    I wish there was a way to amend “freedom of speech” to exclude misusage of other people’s work, out of copyright or not. And this is sanctioned! It hurts.

  3. Jane Steen says:

    I think I said it in my own review of this piece of dreck: for the love of Peter, could the DLS estate not release the characters to the world at large? Holmes has benefited from the mass of fiction the characters have spawned, on the whole. There’s bad and good in fanfic, but their insistence on choosing the ONE writer they think worthy of the task is preventing anything good from emerging.

  4. stewartry says:

    AMEN. Holmes got Laurie R. King. after all, among others – there has to be someone out there for Peter.

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