Saturday, August 25, 2012

Deaths in the penumbra

The not-quite up-to-date archive of 42 years of Masterpiece Theatre tells me that I first met Lord Peter Wimsey in 1973 when I was a teenager. After having my socks charmed off by Ian Carmichael's Wimsey and his loyal man Bunter, I quickly read all 11 novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. Many years passed and I was briefly (although not as thoroughly) engaged by Edward Petherbridge's Wimsey (1987). (Even after listening to this novel, Petherbridge will forever be Newman Noggs to me, via Nicholas Nickleby.) I'm not sure I ever re-read the books, but in 2003 I picked up the first of Jill Paton Walsh's Wimsey novels: the first was from early chapters and an outline from Sayers, the second was inspired by some notes, and the third, The Attenbury Emeralds, is all Paton Walsh. She should stop, and I should go find the originals.

The Attenbury Emeralds' UK version subtitles itself Lord Peter Wimsey's First Case, and novel begins as Wimsey and Bunter tell Peter's wife Harriet how Peter recovered a purloined "kingstone" emerald (which may or may not have been previously purloined from an Indian maharaja) for the Attenbury family in 1921 when Peter was still recovering from the shell shock he suffered as a result of serving in World War I. It's 1951, Peter is 60 and he and Harriet are settling into a comfortable middle age.  The cash-strapped current Earl of Attenbury comes knocking at Peter's door for help. The bank that is holding the emerald has evidence that the jewel in its possession is not the Attenbury emerald, but a matching stone that belongs to someone else, and it will not release the stone to the Earl until he can come up with evidence to the contrary. Peter and Harriet agree to investigate and unearth an elaborate plot of revenge that harkens back to the original case.

This was just dull, entirely missing the spark that is a Wimsey mystery. He and Harriet are kind of awkwardly loving, family and friends appear and disappear demonstrating one or two character traits and nothing else, even the puzzle is not particularly puzzling. (Yes, revenge is a dish that's best eaten cold, but 30 years??)  The long preamble of the 1921 mystery felt endless (two of eight discs!), and it was not related because they'd had the visit from the current Earl -- that took place afterwards. The Wimsey's enlightened 1950s mindset (too bad about those inheritance duties, but it's for the good of England and oh yes! let's have Bunter dine with us) seemed a little too modern. The subplot involving a change in the Wimseys circumstances was extraneous and somewhat craven, although I wonder if that was the author pronouncing herself done with the stories.  And then there's that fairly unappealing cover (British cover much better).

Alas, I must add that Petherbridge was a bit of a disappointment as a narrator. He has a unique way of speaking where he slurs words together, makes unexpected pauses, and decreases volume at the end of sentences and I often had difficulty understanding him. This can be effective when he is acting, but is a little more problematic when reading a book. He does very little voicing, and -- pretty much uniquely in a British narrator in my experience -- reads only with the slightest class and cultural differences.  When Peter and Bunter are recounting the story of the first disappearance of the Attenbury emerald, I often could not tell who was speaking.  On the other hand, when Peter and Harriet are exchanging deep feelings, whether through dialogue or just in the text, Petherbridge produced an emotional huskiness that was rather moving.

So, Library2Go has Ian Carmichael reading Sayers' second Wimsey book, Clouds of Witness.  Good grief, I could check it out right now ... except that I can't. I'm off on vacation for two weeks (exploring and sailing off the coast of Maine) and I've already got my listening lined up.  See you in September.  

[The photograph of the Geschliffener Smaragd (polished emerald) was taken by LesFacettes and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Attenbury Emeralds: Lord Peter Wimsey's First Case by Jill Paton Walsh
Narrated by Edward Petherbridge
AudioGO, 2010. 9:37

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