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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture Watch

Murder From Beyond the Grave

March 08, 1998|DICK ADLER

More than 40 years after her death, Dorothy L. Sayers has a new Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel out this month. "Thrones, Dominations" (St. Martin's Press) becomes the 12th Wimsey book, thanks to the imagination and humility of British novelist Jill Paton Walsh, who turned a rough bag of notes and first-draft chapters into what one early review called "a splendid and high-spirited return from the grave."

"My secret qualification for the job was a passion for Lord Peter Wimsey, which began when I read 'Gaudy Nights' as a teenager," Walsh says.

The 60-year-old writer of children's books, two academic mysteries and the 1994 Booker Prize-nominated novel "Knowledge of Angels" wasn't the first author invited by the Sayers estate to finish "Thrones." P.D. James thought about it and decided to stick with her own man, Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh.

"My first emotion was fascination, then a mixture of honor and fright," says Walsh of being offered the chance to complete a book that Sayers began in 1936, then put aside as she turned her attention to translating Dante and writing about religion.

After Sayers' death in 1957, the 172-page manuscript of "Thrones, Dominations" (the title, from Milton's "Paradise Lost," had particularly pleased Sayers, according to a letter she wrote to a friend) wound up at Wheaton College in Illinois. Another similar typescript was found in an agent's safe in London.

"There were six chapters, numbered within each chapter, but not consecutively, so you had no idea of the order," Walsh says. There were also "a plot diagram with different colored lines for each story thread and a page and a half of very cryptic notes saying things like 'started January before the king's death because of the clothes.'

"Although neither script got as far as the crime, the notes did make it very plain who the murderer was supposed to be--which rather tied my hands," she says. "I think if I were going to write a modern story, I'd prefer another murderer, but I was faithful to DLS and kept hers."

Walsh says that four-fifths of the new 312-page "Thrones" is her invention, including a lively exchange between Lord Peter and his new wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane, about the value of mysteries.

"It's only detective stories. You only read them and write them for fun," Vane says.

Wimsey replies: "You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form. Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted . . . murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged and future murder is deterred."

Sayers couldn't have said it better herself.

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