Back on the Job
Familiar faces, contemporary cases.
Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JON L. BREEN
Jill Paton Walsh was already well known as a mystery writer and Booker-nominated novelist when she got the job of finishing Thrones, Dominations, the novel about Lord Peter Wimsey and his mystery-writer wife Harriet Vane that Dorothy L. Sayers left unfinished when she deserted detective fiction for other literary and religious interests. A second posthumous collaboration, A Presumption of Death, drew on “The Wimsey Papers,” a series of letters Sayers wrote for the Spectator early in World War II, but the mystery problem was entirely Walsh’s own. In The Attenbury Emeralds Walsh brings Peter and Harriet, along with perfect manservant Mervyn Bunter and various associates and family members, into the Britain of the early 1950s to investigate a case that began 30 years earlier at the start of Wimsey’s career as a consulting detective. The characters have aged in real time, and they confront a postwar Britain drastically changed for members of the aristocracy. Walsh is able to take the characters in new directions without distorting them. For plotting, literary style, and character insights, she is one of the most effective successor-authors.
While Walsh is the only writer (to my knowledge) to extend the Wimsey franchise, Jeffery Deaver is at least the fifth to continue the James Bond saga, following Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, and Sebastian Faulks. Unlike the other characters under discussion, Bond has not been placed in a period setting but is thrust into the contemporary world. Not content with ignoring Bond’s past, Deaver effectively erases it. His clean-slate Bond is an Afghan war hero in his early thirties who has a tragic family backstory and works for a covert British unit called the Overseas Development Group. Forget Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, and the other Ian Fleming Bonds—apparently none of that stuff ever happened. Still the secondary characters are in their proper roles—M, Miss Moneypenny, Felix Leiter. Brand names are freely dropped. If Fleming’s Bond had recommended the 2005 Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet, it would have precipitated a run on the wine shops; but I don’t know if Deaver’s version will have the same effect. As in any respectable spy novel, a flurry of acronyms and initialisms are deployed: SOCA, JTAC, ELINT, IMINT, SIGINT, MASINT, COBRA, SAPS. There’s no shortage of beautiful women with suggestive names—Ophelia Maidenstone, Felicity Willing—exotic locales are widespread and varied—Serbia, Dubai, South Africa—and gadgets from Q section are available at short notice. The main visible villains, recycling tycoon and corpse devotee Severan Hydt and engineer Niall Dunne (aka the Irishman), are in the grand tradition. Less Fleming-like is the whodunit element, solved by Bond from fair, if well-hidden, clues.
The novel begins unpromisingly with cinematic derring-do and a plethora of clumsily inserted tidbits from the author’s research files, a tendency that becomes more tolerable as the story gathers momentum. Deaver is meticulous enough to explain why Bond wants his martini shaken rather than stirred: It’s colder that way and serves to aerate the vodka, improving the flavor. Deaver is a trick constructionist whose fictional technique involves the planting of periodic jolts to the reader’s expectations. However expertly done, this sometimes becomes too much of a good thing, like a fireworks display that goes on too long. It generally works better in his short stories. The bottom line: a respectable effort that mainly lacks Ian Fleming’s stylistic flair.
Mickey Spillane was a competent writer with a knack for colorful prose and operatic plotting who struck a responsive note with mostly male readers in post-World War II America. Where Doyle, Sayers, and Fleming all had a favorable critical response in their own time, Spillane did not. In the April 1952 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, four prominent reviewers were quoted on The Long Wait. Most backhandedly complimentary was Anthony Boucher of the New York Times (“may rank as the best Spillane . . . faintest praise this department has ever bestowed”). Also weighing in were James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune (“Readers will look without success for any hint of intentional satire”), Lenore Glen Offord of the San Francisco Chronicle (“murky and incredible plot and complete lack of taste, all as usual”), and Sergeant Cuff of the Saturday Review (“Amnesia angle handcuffs reader; plot turgid and violent”). Those of us who believe the contemporary reviewers essentially got it right are swimming against the prevailing tide.