Winter Reading Roundup, Part II: Mystery and Middle Grade in WWII Britain

Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, by Jill Paton Walsh (and Dorothy Sayers)

Though I’m not a Sayers expert, it seems to me Jill Paton Walsh carries off these post-Sayers Wimsey-Vane mysteries admirably. Sayers, it seems, lost interest in Thrones, Dominations after penning a partial manuscript and some notes. In 1986 the publisher approached Walsh with the manuscript, and she agreed to complete it. (Who wouldn’t?) The result is the first full-length work to pick up with Peter and Harriett’s married life in London. It follows Busman’s Honeymoon, set in Harriett’s hometown of Hertfordshire.

During WWII Sayers published some letters by members of the Wimsey family that provided the public with a glimpse of the Wimseys’ wartime life. These letters provided the inspiration as well as the opening chapters of A Presumption of Death. Harriett, her two children, her nephews, and a niece are back in Hertfordshire. Peter is on the continent doing (what else?) top-secret intelligence work. When a murder takes place during a village air raid, Harriett, of course, agrees to help with the investigation.

I appreciate Sayers’ mysteries for their development of characters and substantive questions. Though probably not the first to do so, Gaudy Night was the book in which I first recall Harriett wrestling seriously with her position as a potentially married woman. Most of the action takes place at her alma mater, where Harriett feels the allure of academic life. Her meditations on what it means to combine her role as successful writer with that of aristocratic wife in the mid-twentieth century carry forward into the following books as she marries and has children. Even in very different circumstances, I found her questions and struggles relevant and compelling.

Walsh carries the torch in these two mysteries so convincingly that I often forgot they were the product of a different pen. However, my husband and I gave up on Paton’s third installment, The Attenbury Emeralds, after forging through a fair portion of it. The rather bland portrayals of Peter and Harriett departed too greatly from their earlier depictions, and the conceit of relating an early mystery through Peter’s and Bunter’s dialogue for nearly half the book lacked energy.

A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus

Like A Presumption of Death, this middle grade novel takes place in an English village during WWII, complete with rationing, bombing fears, and uncertainty about the future. Although totally unlike D (click here for a review), it too was influenced by C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which the four Pevensie siblings are evacuated to the countryside “because of the air raids.”

In this case the protagonists are three orphans whose last remaining guardian, an aloof grandmother, has recently passed away. Their lawyer bundles them into a group of London evacuees heading for the countryside, in the hope that William, Edmund (yes, Edmund), and Anna will find a forever family.

What they encounter is neither a mansion nor a magical world nor a loving home but prejudice and poverty. The find refuge in (of course) books, which leads them to the local library and a redemptive relationship with the librarian, also an object of unjust suspicion. The plot wears a bit thin and suffers from some holes, but A Place to Hang the Moon is a quick and enjoyable read.

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