Book Review: Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers’ A Presumption of Death

Posted January 11, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers’ A Presumption of Death

A Presumption of Death

It is part of the , series and is a on August 3, 2004 and has 384 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Second in the Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane secondary historical mystery series that carries on from the original Lord Peter Wimsey series (fifteenth) by Dorothy Sayers.

My Take

There’s a subtle difference between this story and Thrones, Dominations. And it could well be just my imagination not believing that Walsh could do as well as Sayers. It is a cleverly written story. Walsh has used a series of letters Sayers wrote for the Spectator as the bones for this story. And I’m most grateful.

I did thoroughly enjoy this story, and, yes, part of the reason could well be that I simply adore the characters and am desperate to not have to end my acquaintance with them.

That said, this was an interesting look at living in an English village during wartime with all the lack of privacy that comes from living in one another’s pockets and the subterfuge used to get around rationing. What with pig-sharing and secret egg stashes. There’s also the countryside’s view of the young children who were sent out to them and the trials and tribulations experienced by the villagers in dealing with this influx.

A very Wimsey-ical comment: to light up the Albert Memorial to make it easier for Hitler’s bombs to find it.

Part of Duke’s Denver has been taken over to use as a boys’ school and it irks the hell out of Helen. Fortunately, she’s rarely there and Gerald really gets into it. An enjoyment Helen would have put a stop to.

Oh lord, then there’s one of the children telling Mummy [Harriet] that he thinks he would understand better “if only you wouldn’t explain”.

There’s an interesting amount of criticism about the war, mostly about the uselessness of politicians. Neville Chamberlain starts as the prime minister, but it isn’t that long before Winston Churchill is giving his famous speech.

Crack me up! The dowager duchess is concerned about finding a gas mask that will match the dress-pattern exactly! What? Is Harriet going to color coordinate whenever the air raid sirens sound? The duchess does sound off on an interesting note about the conflict between grown-ups who want children to be children for so very long while children are so anxious to grow up. She mentions the Wimseys in the past who accomplished so very much while still in their teens because they weren’t treated as children. An interesting dichotomy.

This seems like a loose end when, early in the story, St. George strongly suggests that Harriet move herself and the children to Duke’s Denver. But then nothing seems to come of this.

Yes, war can be quite effective at creating changes. At one point, Miss Climpson writes that “one young lady…standing in for her brother…” at an armaments factory is shocked by how easy the work is. And this after listening to him complain about how hard it is. That it’s opened her eyes and she won’t be doing any more waiting on anybody.

Ooh, this was interesting…Bunter is making lead shot, and I recently read a post on the man who discovered an efficient way to create round lead shot. Oooh, gross. My imagination was accurately at work about the illegal slaughtering that occurred in the Wimseys’ slaughtering shed. Ick, ick, ick…!

I love this series. It’s a little bit Agatha Christie and a little bit Dorothy Dunnett. Homey and intellectual in a warm and cozy way.

And Harriet comes to realize how very much she loves her husband.

The Story

Peter is off spying and Harriet has retreated to Talboys in Hertfordshire with their two sons and Lady Mary and Parker’s three children. It’s an awkward spot for Harriet. On the one hand she’s Dr. Vane’s daughter returned. On the other hand, she’s returned as Lady Peter Wimsey.

Still, it does provide Harriet with breathing space to find a common ground between the two. A place where she can be comfortable. And, with Peter away doing dangerous work, Superintendent Kirk soon helps to occupy her time.

The Characters

Harriet, Lady Peter, is an author of detective stories and she is married to Lord Peter Wimsey, who has run off to do his usual run of spying and diplomacy for the Foreign Office. They have two children now: Bredon is three and Paul is a year old. Lady Mary and CID Chief Inspector Charles Parker‘s children are with Harriet as it’s safer there for the children. Charles Peter is ten (call him Charlie); Mary is called Polly; and, little Harriet is three. Mrs. Trapp has come into the country with them while Bunter is off with Peter. Hope Fanshaw Bunter is doing some sort of war work with her photography while their baby is staying with her parents. Sadie and Queenie are the Talboy maids.

Sam Bateson from the next door farm is young Charlie’s best friend. John Bateson is his dad and one of the pig-sharers along with the Ruddles, Twitteron, Goodacre, the Lugs, Puffets, Wimseys, Simcox, and the Raikes. Dang, these must be some really big pigs!

Honoria Lucasta Wimsey is the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Peter’s mother. She’s an absolute sweetheart. Gerald is another son, the oldest, and therefore the Duke of Denver. Jerry is Lord St. George, the heir, and he’s signed up with the Royal Air Force. He’s still pushing his luck with Harriet; especially now that Peter’s away. He does however bring young Charlie a crystal set that he and Sam spend hours over. Helen is the current duchess and a major pain. She’s demanding that Harriet apply to boarding school for Bredon. Personally, I think the English should aim Helen at the Germans. They’d surrender within days, if not hours.

Miss Aggie Twitterton is a 40-something maiden lady whom we first met in Busman’s Honeymoon; she keeps hens and is said to be haunting the lanes late at night. Jake Datchett, a farmer’s son, and Archie Lugg, Fred’s son who works as a handyman, were both involved with Wicked Wendy. Fred Lugg is fire watching the night Wicked Wendy is found; he’s the village undertaker. Mrs. Ruddle is a gossipy thing, always dropping in on Mrs. Trapp; her husband Bert is doing up bunkbeds for the Methodists in their air raid shelter. Constable Jack Baker doesn’t seem to do much other than count heads during air raids. Mrs. Susan Hodge owns the cottage Harriet would like to rent or put the land-girls in. George Withers owns the garden with the unusual harvest. Simon Goodacre is the vicar whose wife tracks which villager can handle how many refugees. Dr. Jellyfield is the village doctor. Mr. Gudgeon and his wife run the village pub, the Crown, where the Presbyterians shelter from the air raids. Mrs. Spright used to be a dentist over at Broxford only she’s retired and seeing Germans behind every bush. Sometimes she’s even right! Mrs. Marbleham, formerly of London, is most upset about living above a greengrocer; she and her family won’t be eating any of that pig’s forage! Flight Lieutenant Alan Brinklow has a broken ankle from having to bail out from his plane and he’s recuperating in the village at Yew Tree Lane cottage.

Superintendent Kirk asks Harriet for help since Lord Peter isn’t available. Bungo is something with some hush-hush department. He shows up at Talboys with a cipher that only Harriet can decode.

The land-girls include Wendy Percival, a.k.a., Wicked Wendy, is out gallivanting as much as she can of an evening. Of good family, she’s done some traveling and knew several languages. Muriel is the suspicious one while Rita is only a touch more friendly.

Brigadier Baldock is in charge over at Steen Manor where John Birdlap, one of Wendy’s suitors, is stationed.

Miss Climpson is put to work by Harriet. Mrs. Quarley is Joan’s mother. Joan was supposed to marry Brinklow and, um, she’s pregnant. Jeff Quarley is a pilot and Joan’s brother. He also moonlights as Mike Newcastle. He certainly does have some good reasons. Wing-Commander Thompson is his CO.

The Cover and Title

The cover is golden and red. The top half is a gold background with black silhouettes in a montage of events in the story from Harriet walking down the lane, the church where the fire warden squats, to the warplanes flying overhead. The bottom half of the cover is red with a gold title.

Well, it is A Presumption of Death which creates the possibility of the imposture in the first place.