Books: A Dotty map, a Wimsey marriage, a Vane project

THRONES, DOMINATIONS by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh, Hodder pounds 16.99

SO WHAT did happen to Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey after they got married? Weddings usually come at the end of novels for a very good reason, which is that the drama of star-crossed lovers - or of a woman writer reluctant to give up her independence, even for the man she loves, in Harriet Vane's case - is much more interesting than the details of their domestic life together after the nuptials.

Perhaps that is why Dorothy L Sayers chose to open her final, unfinished detective novel with one of those classic set-pieces in which assumptions about the central characters are set up and promptly demolished. Harriet and Peter, according to someone dining in the same restaurant in Paris, look like "the English married couple par excellence" - polite, bored with each other, lacking in passion. On the contrary, says his companion, who happens to be Peter's uncle. Wimsey fell in love with Harriet as soon as he met her pursued her for five years, and they are even now returning from a prolonged honeymoon. "Mayfair," he adds, "is awaiting the result of this curious matrimonial experiment."

In the same restaurant is another English couple: Laurence Harwell and his stunningly beautiful wife, Rosamund, whom he rescued from penury after her father went to prison for fraud. The scene is thus set for a portrait of not one but two marriages, one conventional and the other unusual, and the contrast between them is made all the more stark when one of the Harwells is murdered. These events take place against the background of the death of the old king, George V, and the accession of a new one, Edward VIII, with rumours already emerging from France of his affair with a married woman.

In that sense, Thrones, Dominations, which is Sayers's own choice of title, is an ambitious portrait of a nation in the throes of modernisation as well as of the internal politics of two marriages. This is a heavy weight for a detective novel to bear, and may be one of the reasons why Sayers eventually abandoned the book in 1936, leaving an uncompleted manuscript and notes. The novel has now been finished by the author Jill Paton Walsh - whose own novel Knowledge of Angels was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - an enterprise which inevitably raises questions about the wisdom of posthumous publication and the ability of one writer to stand in for another.

There are many novels whose characters exert such a grip on readers' imaginations that the longing for sequels is not extinguished with the demise of their authors. Authors as diverse as Jane Austen and Margaret Mitchell have attracted novelists who have completed unfinished manuscripts, as in this case, or written so-called sequels from scratch. Hodder & Stoughton, the publisher of this version of Thrones, Dominations, say that Paton Walsh has finished the text "in Sayers's voice", which is of course a matter of opinion. To be fair, there is no obvious moment in the novel when Sayers stops and Paton Walsh takes over, and yet the overall atmosphere, with its close attention to period detail and its archness of tone, is near to pastiche.

The treatment of the Wimsey marriage, with its high-flown love-talk and endless bouts of soul-searching, suggests that neither novelist is able to imagine the characters as husband and wife, which is why the Harwells' troubled union plays the role of useful diversion. But this shifts attention to the murder plot, which is in itself so stuffed with red herrings as to offer another possible explanation for Sayers's decision to abandon it. The conventions of 1930s crime writing have never had much relation to realism but even they are stretched by the absence of any credible alternative to the murderer, while a series of coincidences and some frankly silly business with a papier-mache mask reduces the denouement almost to farce.

The question which remains is why, 50 years later, anyone would want to take on such a project. Sayers, who died in 1957, had plenty of time to go back and finish Thrones, Dominations but decided - wisely, I think - against it. The fact that Paton Walsh was educated at Oxford, like Sayers, and taught by Sayers's friend C S Lewis - these connections are cited by the publisher in publicity material - do not explain why she wanted to embark on what amounts to a literary impersonation. Of course, finishing another writer's novel may be the ultimate homage of a dedicated fan but the result is likely to be an unsatisfactory hybrid, prompting unanswerable questions in readers' minds about both plot and characters.

In a sense, what Paton Walsh has done is remind us of the shortcomings of the Golden Age detective novel without displaying its strengths. The atmosphere of a genuine Sayers novel, or indeed the books Agatha Christie wrote around this time, convey a powerful sense of a social fabric strained and torn by outside events, such as the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. Their characters struggle with forces they do not completely comprehend, creating a sense of urgency which is replaced, in Thrones, Dominations, by a reliance on hindsight.

What the book proves, in the end, is the uniqueness of each writer's vision. It is possible to look up details about train times and postal deliveries, to know the earlier novels inside out, and still come up with something lifeless. Among the papers Sayers left behind, according to a letter she wrote about the progress of Thrones, Dominations before she abandoned it, was an outline of the plot drawn in coloured inks. Jill Paton Walsh has filled out the features of this map, adding local colour: but it remains a map nonetheless.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz