Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of Crime Fiction

Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of Crime Fiction

Article excerpt

Pity the poor novelist whom commercial pressures trap within a series, doomed with each volume to diminish the stock of options for the next one. It's even harder when the series is not yours to begin with.

Jill Paton Walsh has now written her fourth instalment of the Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane detective novels, created by Dorothy L. Sayers. The Late Scholar (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99, Spectator Bookshop, £15.39) is set mainly in Oxford, the location of Sayers' own Gaudy Night.

Wimsey is asked to adjudicate a bitter dispute among the fellowship of St Severin's College, of which he is the Visitor. The Warden has vanished. The fellows have been plagued by a series of accidents and fatalities, which are oddly similar to those in Harriet's detective novels. Can this have something to do with the controversial proposal to sell a college treasure, an edition of Boethius that may have belonged to Alfred the Great?

'This is Oxford, ' remarks a percipient scout. 'You never know who will get up to what.' Paton Walsh handles the traditional detective element of the story with skill and good humour. The charm of the novel, however, lies in her portrayal of Peter and Harriet as an aging married couple.

The novel also carries the series forward into the 1950s: the war and the years of austerity have had their effect on the Wimseys, and they are learning to cope with a new world. Rather than attempt a pallid imitation, Paton Walsh has reinvented Sayers's series and put her own stamp on it. It is difficult to see how it could have been done better.

John Lawton plundered the lyrics of Leonard Cohen for the title of his latest historical spy thriller, Then We Take Berlin (Grove Press, £17.99, Spectator Bookshop, £15.99), trailed as the first of a series.

The fictional present is 1963. The central character is a Cockney burglar, John Holderness, whom the women in his life call 'Wilderness'. A former black market associate wants him to smuggle a woman from East Berlin to the West at the same time as JFK's visit to the city.

In practice, much of the narrative has little to do with 1963. Lawton takes us on a tour of the back story - including Wilderness's wartime apprenticeship as a burglar with his villainous grandfather; his undistinguished RAF career that leads, via Cambridge, to a posting with MI6 to Germany; and his time in Berlin, where the black market allows his talents to flourish.

Lawton builds a wonderfully convincing picture of the world in which Wilderness moves, writing with remarkable authority on subjects ranging from safe-cracking to the bureaucratic processing of displaced people and the horrors of postwar Germany. …

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