2. Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

2 Jan

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I have owned, but been afraid to read Thrones, Dominations for 17 years.

The book, published in 1998, is the first volume of a continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries written by an English mystery writer and Sayers fan named Jill Paton Walsh. It completes a partial manuscript left by Sayers at the time of her death. There have also been three more Lord Peter mysteries written by Walsh, which also sit, spines uncracked, in the Sayers area of my bookshelves.

(For a more thorough introduction to Sayers’ work, see this blog post.)

I didn’t hesitate out of fear that the books would be bad, though I was certain—correctly so—that they would be. And I didn’t hesitate because I am so gloopily, foolishly and entirely in love with Lord Peter Wimsey that I can’t bear to see him spoiled, though that’s true too. I hesitated because it’s a particular characteristic of the Wimsey books that the character has always seemed nearly as alive off-the-page as on it. I can’t quite think of anyone else in fiction, besides possibly Bertie Wooster, who has this quality. There are dozens, thousands, (millions ?) of characters who are well-written enough to seem “real,” but how many can we really imagine having interesting daily lives outside of the adventures related in their books?

Peter, only Peter, always Peter.

Sayers’ hero somehow calls forth a belief in his entire life, in his wealth of adventures that just haven’t been written down. I’ve loved this dark-space Wimsey nearly as much as the chronicled one, and probably longed for him more. The books are like a photograph of a man who broke your heart who you know is still out there, living other lives that will be forever unknown to you, and looking at the photo is both pleasurable and painful….

In one sense, this quality practically begs for a continuation of the Sayers’ oeuvre by another writer. In another, some inferior writer tromping around in the dark space is just unbearable, or so I’d always obscurely felt, until yesterday when I said ‘Oh what the hell’ and read the thing.

It was not quite as bad as I’d imagined it would be. Sayers ended the series on a cliffhanger, at the end of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane’s honeymoon, when the new couple seems to have worked out their issues but before they’ve had to go back to London together, face Peter’s family and get on with ordinary life. Seeing what happens next—as we do in Thrones, Dominions, is delightful. The first dinner party thrown for the couple by snob and perennial villain The Duchess of Denver was so much fun it almost lulled me into thinking that Paton Walsh could pull it off. And this was despite the fact that a crime had yet to rear its ugly head by page 100, something unheard of for a classic-form detective novelist like Sayers.

There was also a truly Sayers feeling about the plot and the characters involved in the eventual crime, which included a French society-portrait painter, a harlequin mask (she liked those), a femme-fatale redhead (she liked those too), a passionately obsessed husband, and a dangerous final scene where Lord Peter confronts the murderer in a dramatic locale.

Now, for the rest of it, I am probably (definitely) one of those readers who, when this book was in the discussion stages, they wrote off by saying “There will always be die-hard fans who will never accept it….”. And okay, that’s true. On the positive side, writing a book is hard as fucking hell, and Paton Walsh does a fairly readable job of this one. If you want a crude simulacrum of a Wimsey novel that gets the fundamental point of the books’ appeal as romantic-comedy, and knows that women like repressed, rich, handsome, blond English Lords with manservants and secret jujitsu moves, it’s decent.

But otherwise, it’s a terrible perversion of the excellent, inimitable rigor of Dorothy Sayers on every level.

Sayers wrote crisp, clear, tight prose—sometimes boring prose, I will admit, but always elegant and economically worded. Walsh doesn’t quite have that gene.

Sayers books were ethical explorations as much as they were detective novels, and she built real teeth into her characters’ dilemmas. Peter Wimsey investigated crimes because it amused him, and then he suffered agonies about the moral responsibilities he invoked. He was doing a ‘right’ thing for something of a wrong reason, and he was unable to let himself off the hook for it. His hobby sometimes brought bad people to justice—and sometimes it brought nice people, who’d made a mistake, to a cruel end. At the end of the day, he got many men hanged.

Sayers was a Christian theologian, and she did not take this lightly. She sometimes flirted with a version of Peter as a cruel dilettante, and occasionally allowed him to enjoy the power and romance of being a hangman, but in the end she always made him suffer. At the end of his cases he usually had ‘attacks’ of depression, something akin to shell-shock, where he was nursed by his manservant, Bunter (also his batman during the war). This darkness stalked him throughout the books, and though he knew his moral qualms were justified, and his suffering a necessary price for the men for whose deaths he bore responsibility, he viewed the collapses as weakness, and condemned himself for that too. His dazzling silliness was entirely a mask for pain. Seeing him forgive himself enough to be able to fall in love is a large part of why the romantic arc is so satisfying.

These are fine-grained problems. They are not Hollywood problems. Paton Walsh gets it that there are supposed to be ethics involved, but doesn’t seem to know what an ethic is, so we’re left with, for example, an exchange where Peter absolves Harriet of the moral complexity of her work because,

“‘Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred.'”

If Peter Wimsey said something that banal, it would be satire. Neither Sayers, nor Peter, nor Harriet ever believed in dreams or visions or consoling fantasies, or in anything other than truth. Both characters’ inability to allow a consoling fantasy is the precise engine that keeps them apart for five or six books. The moral complexity of their work is the heart and soul of the series, and cannot be forgiven or dismissed. (Harriet tells Peter his work is wonderful in the same scene).  And that bit about “villains betrayed by clues they did not know they were leaving” is meaningless glop, thrown in to sound good. Sayers would scream.

The rest of the exchange (p 155) gets worse, and ends with Peter uttering a confounding bit of anti-intellectualism about how “‘very clever people can get their visions of justice from Dostoyevsky…but there aren’t enough of them to make a climate of opinion. Ordinary people in large numbers read what you write.'” There’s some basis for this. In Strong Poison Peter called mystery writing “the purest form of literature we have,” but he was saying it in defense of Harriet, and he was provoked. Elsewhere Sayers provides ample acknowledgement of the ghoulishness, and makes Harriet feel it. And, oh God, Dostoyevsky is many things, but poster-child for philosophy of justice he is not. I’m sure Paton Walsh threw him in because he sounds good, but Sayers would never have made that mistake, and putting it in the mouth of Peter Wimsey is just abhorrent.

I also found Walsh’s tendency to steal quotations from previous perfect, incendiary scenes to be cheap and cringeworthy. She re-uses, “Not faint Canaries, but ambrosial” and the shabby tigers line from Busman’s Honeymoon, and going up like straw, and throws around the endearment ‘Domina,’ and otherwise profanes the sacred in a variety of ways.

The plentiful sexual and bodily crudeness, the slang and modern cliches, hearing Peter say “my feelings exactly,” seeing Harriet prove her worth by coming up with a blindingly obvious solution involving home decor…. none of it is surprising. It would have been surprising if it were any other way.

And yet, I’ll probably read the next one now that I’ve started.

 

 

 

One Response to “2. Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 11. Lord Peter, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, by Dorothy Sayers | An Anthology of Clouds - January 31, 2015

    […] now re-reading all of the more obscure Dorothy Sayers books, delving into the corners of Lord Peter Wimsey’s existence that I wrote about earlier this month. There are twenty-one stories here collected—which seem to […]

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