July 24, 2004

A Presumption of Death

A Presumption of Death
Jill Patton Walsh and Dorothy Sayers


(July 24, 2004)

Early in World War II, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of light magazine pieces about the war scene, in the form of letters notionally written by her popular mystery characters. Here, Jill Patton Walsh fleshes out this rather unpromising material into a new mystery, set in Paggelham during the months of the Phony War.

Walsh does a wonderful job of capturing the moment, without sentimentality and without putting it in a display case. Lurking beneath the surface, here, is the knowledge that this really was a very last hurrah, the moment when the meaning of Englishness was about to shift radically and permanently. (Most historical novelists would reach for 1914, of course, or perhaps for Victoria's funeral in 1901)

As a mystery, it's not a success: whodunnit is obvious, and the process of revelation is not particularly revealing.