"The Attenbury Emeralds" by Jill Paton Walsh
Minotaur, 338 pp., $25.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Purists will always object to another hand reviving beloved fictional characters that a creator's passing have rendered immobilized.
However, if the literary revitalization is not only well-intentioned, but also remarkably well-written and faithful in flavor to the exploits of the original character-- then really, why grouse?
(It's not as if dozens of successful mystery novelists haven't taken a stab at Sherlock Holmes and his associates, providing some surprisingly delightful new adventures.)
British author Jill Paton Walsh-- who has written across many literary genres and established her own commendable mystery series set at Cambridge University-- brings Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and wife Harriet into a freshly minted mystery that proves noteworthy not only for its artfully devised plot, but also for its thematic underpinnings pertaining to changing attitudes toward the English aristocracy.
When the story commences-- related in flashback by Lord Peter to Harriet, with able assistance from the omnipresent butler, Bunter-- the shell-shocked (from World War I) Wimsey is being truly overseen by Bunter, who accompanies m'lord to an engagement party honoring the daughter of family friends Lord and Lady Attenbury.
Additionally, Wimsey is a school chum of the betrothed's brother.
There, at the Attenbury manse, Fennybrook Hall, in 1921, Wimsey first becomes acquainted with the hostory of the Attenbury family jewels-- specifically, the largest specimen of their emeralds, possessed of a provenance that traces it back to a maharajah in India who hopes to recover that gem, sold with others during the course of a famine.
During the intervening thirty years from then until the present time in the story, 1951, the emerald is subject to theft, switcheroos, murders, and disasters, somewhat reminiscent of a notorious diamond on display in the Smithsonian Museum.
Paton's extended time span affords her some nicely drawn scenes during the Second World War and its aftermath of protracted domestic austerity in Great Britain.
The Attenbury family allows for some delectable characterizations, particularly that of a scandalous young matron-- a disciple of hot jazz, gin, and gambling who ages into a boozy caricature of herself, misplaced in a post-war world in which she increasingly finds herself a relic.
Lord Peter and Harriet find themselves in a subplot that completely overhauls their cozy household, dredging up thorny family secrets.
Well, what's in a name? Walsh could just as easily have named her protagonists Lord Pimpernel Willow and Henrietta, and still pulled off a jolly fine mystery.
Lighten up, naysayers-- the surname's Wimsey, after all.
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