Friday, August 29, 2014

The Attenbury Emeralds: Review

Currently (at least on Facebook) there is a major debate raging over Sophie Hannah's forthcoming Hercule Poirot novel. A large number of diehard Christie fans are up in arms and who can blame them? All of the promotional material I've seen shows the cover with "Agatha Christie" emblazoned in huge letters at the top of the book.* Many commenters have initially been confused--asking if this has recently been found among Christie's papers. I have to say that it gives every appearance of the Christie estate trying to hoodwink readers into thinking that this is an Agatha Christie story. It's not. And this sense of being tricked is what really puts me off. Of course, I also am not terribly keen on authors trying to take up the mantle of a much beloved novelist. It rarely goes well. (The sequel to Gone With the Wind, anyone?) There are a fair number of good Sherlock Holmes pastiches--but there are also a multitude of poor ones. But to my knowledge none of them try to pass themselves off as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. [*Please note how tiny the "Based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers" is on the cover to the right.]

Which brings me to The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh. The Lord Peter Wimsey novels which have sprung forth from Paton Walsh's hand would be a prime reason why I am very reluctant to pick up The Monogram Murders by Hannah. I dearly love Dorothy L. Sayers's novels and was, quite honestly, thrilled to hear that she was going to use DLS's notes and partially finished work to give us Thrones, Dominations. What LPW fan wouldn't want more adventures with our lordly sleuth? That book was okay--not even close to the brilliant gem it could have been if Sayers had completed it, but okay. And when the next one came out I read that too in the hopes that Paton Walsh would be more comfortable with the characters and begin to come into her own with them. It didn't happen and, in fact, the second novel was much weaker than the first--probably because there was even less Sayers material to work with. So, why, you may ask, have I continued with the series when I have been disappointed with the results so far? Because I cannot resist the Wimsey charm even when it hasn't been properly represented. The same reason that I've already started the most recent LPW/Harriet Vane adventure, The Late Scholar. Resistance is futile...I don't want that to happen with Poirot. So....unless an overwhelming majority of reviewers I know and trust give rave reviews to The Monogram Murders, I won't be touching it.

And now....on with the review.

The titular Attenbury Emeralds have been the focus of mystery for quite some time. In 1921 Wimsey, just making his entrance back into society in his recovery effort after the war, is involved with the hue and cry that goes up when the famous large stone of the set goes missing. It is his maiden venture into the realm of amateur detecting and his handling of it and the publicity around the recovery of the gem launches him into the career that serves as the most efficacious cure for his shell-shocked nerves. Years later, after the Second World War, another crisis arises with emerald and the newest Lord Attenbury asks Wimsey to investigate. With all the changes after the war, most immediately the heavy death duties he faces on the passing of his father, the new lord would like to sell the emerald and save his estate. But a claimant has popped up--asserting that the emerald held in the bank vault is not Attenbury's at all, that somehow it has been switched. The bank will not allow Attenbury to remove the stone for sale until proof can be supplied that it is, indeed, the family's property. Wimsey with the assistance of Harriet and Bunter must track down the crucial moment when the stones may have been switched....but the case takes a more diabolical turn when they discover that each time the emerald was removed from the vault a death followed.

This novel, as with the first two, contains flashes of Wimsey and his lady that are true to form but they are too few and far between. The entire first quarter of the book reads like a bad drawing room comedy between two people who are doing their best to appear that they know and love each other but don't really. Peter and Harriet's literary quote filled banter always had a thread of joy and sexiness running through it that is sadly lacking. Bunter's relationship to the two is also slightly askew. Granted, the times they are a-changing and the relationships between the gentry and servants may not be the same--but Bunter is too old-school to ever change and Paton Walsh's efforts to indicate this make Bunter into a wooden version of himself throughout a large portion of the book. The person who comes off best is the Dowager Duchess--she still isn't quite as Sayers wrote her, but she is the closest rendition we have.

The story has a very self-aware feel especially in the first third with coy references to "if this were one of my detective novels" and "not nearly as good as Christie or Sayers." Let's just announce in a loud voice that "Hey look, we're amateur detectives in a mystery novel" shall we?  I should also make reference to the quite awful method of delivery for the previous emerald incident. Sitting round the fire for "story hour" was bad enough, but then we follow Peter and Harriet around from tea shop to kitchen table and back to the fireside for installments (like this is a radio serial story or something). There must have been a better way to tell the back history. Peter could have started out in story-teller mode...fade to black and whoosh we're in 1921 and following events...fade back to present with wrap-up comments/questions and Bob's your uncle. Tally-ho and let's play hunt the emerald in modern times. I don't know. All I do know is the first half of the book does not work well for the reader or the characters involved. [Speaking of Bob and his uncle, since when does Peter say "old chap" except perhaps in deliberate and obvious irony?]

The mystery itself is convoluted and full of coincidence. The investigation itself is fairly well done but the plot leaves a lot to be desired. Paton Walsh does a much better job with her own Imogen Quy series--most likely because the characters are hers and she doesn't have to worry about writing in the shadow of such a fabulous author. She can just tell her story and concentrate on the plot construction.

★★ purely for my beloved characters and the chance to visit with them despite their imperfect renderings. 


TomCat said...

Well, this is an interesting review.

I remember being pleasantly surprised by Thrones, Dominations, because, usually, I despise pastiches. It was good enough to give A Presumption of Death a shot and loved the dark, brooding wartime atmosphere of the story, but it was very noticeable there was less original material to work with. That's probably why I never got around to this one and now I probably never will. Thanks a lot!

There are, however, one or two of Marsh's Imogen Quy mysteries on the TBR-pile. I have to give 'em a look one of these days.

fredamans said...

It's tough when you are not sure about picking up a book and then it slightly disappoints. Great review though.

Ryan said...

I did agree to review the new Poirot book. I'm kinda scared to read it though.

Bev Hankins said...

I'll be interested to see what you think of the Poirot book, Ryan. As I said, if my fellow bloggers give it rave reviews, I will give it a try (but from the library or something, I won't be buying). Otherwise, it will get a pass from me.