The plot of A PRESUMPTION OF DEATH is relatively simple. The time is 1939 and England is at war. Lord Peter Wimsey is off doing his duty while his wife Harriet Vane --- mother, mystery writer and involved citizen --- has fled to the English countryside with her children and their cousins. After a practice air raid drill, a young woman of questionable virtue is found dead. Superintendent Kirk of the local constabulary calls upon Harriett to help solve the murder. Lord Peter usually undertakes this kind of investigation, but he is unavailable and a dead girl's killer must be found. "I don't know which way to turn, Lady Peter, and that's the truth," says Kirk, when he proposes that Harriet help him. She reluctantly agrees to step in: "It isn't easy … [s]tanding in for Peter", but this is "… in various ways what I seem to be for, at the moment."
That particular murder is the epicenter around which Jill Paton Walsh builds her tale. She uses the "Wimsey Papers", a collection of works that Dorothy L. Sayers had published in The Spectator in the 1930s and 1940s. These papers comprise a series of letters written by the Wimsey family to each other and to friends. They become the voices of the characters, both familiar and new, that Sayers wrote about. Walsh comments: "In A PRESUMPTION OF DEATH all I had to use were propaganda letters, and so I had a completely free hand with the plot."
To recreate Harriet Vane in A PRESUMPTION OF DEATH, Walsh says, " … [Sayers] didn't exactly promote Harriet, who is not, by any means, an idealized character. Just compare her with Peter. Look how grumpy she is, how bad-tempered, how sometimes cool she is. She's not beautiful, and has a hard, chilly-eyed view of life. And that's what gives her [a] convincing quality." She is bored with "just" being Lady Peter and, while she adores her children, she yearns for the freedom she had before motherhood and the war imposed their restrictions upon her. Readers and fans will have to decide for themselves how they feel about these issues, but the truth is they do not detract from an otherwise well-told story.
Agatha Christie and many other writers kill off their central characters in order to preserve their place in the canon. Sayers did not do this and, clearly, she left the "Wimsey Papers" for someone to "keep alive" with her/his ideas. The challenge for Walsh is to decide whether or not she wants to "adopt" the Wimsey clan with all of their eccentricities, lordly ways, manners and humor, or if she will decide that two is enough. When asked if she would consider this proposition, she said, "I would be fascinated, but I would be increasingly careful. Each step you take away from an authentic piece of work the harder it's going to be to maintain authenticity and I would need to think really hard. I mean Lord Peter and Harriet are lovely fun, they're awfully entertaining to write about, and I can think of loads of books about them that I'd love to write --- that's not the problem. I would need to be sure I could do it well. And by well, I mean really consistent with Sayers's work."
Jill Paton Walsh is a writer in her own right. She is the author of several children's books and six adult novels. She was invited to complete a Sayers manuscript (THRONES, DOMINATIONS): I "… had a lot of fun doing it" and she was applauded for her efforts. For this second book she had the "papers" to help bolster and frame her story. A PRESUMPTION OF DEATH is a good read. Fans will find that it is faithful to the personalities Dorothy L. Sayers created and the plot is one that certainly resembles the original Wimsey/Vane pattern.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on March 27, 2003