Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
The Late Scholar is based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers but it might be advisable for a modern reader to suspend memories of The Nine Tailors or Gaudy Night and to view this as an historical curiosity, faintly reminiscent of the Golden Age. The protagonist is a duke, his wife a crime novelist, the butler doubles as detective’s accessory. The year is 1953; people have servants, women are “girls”, murder is a capital offence.
Lord Peter Wimsey is Visitor – an ultimate adjudicator – to an Oxford college. Strapped for cash its faculty is passionately embroiled in the problem of whether or not to sell a valuable manuscript in order to speculate in land. Serious accidents have occurred; with Wimsey’s arrival violence turns to murder, a feature of the modus operandi being that they are culled from the plots in the duchess’s books, themselves based on Wimsey’s cases. The motivation behind this literary incest is never explained.
There are jokes aplenty, usually coy, sometimes in bad taste. Paradoxically the atmosphere is scholarly, the text bristling with quotations and exotic protocol but against the backdrop of crumbling ivory towers the warring dons come across as a flock of crows, indistinguishable one from the other as opposed to the city of Oxford itself, obviously the author’s cherished love. The duchess says of her own novels that they are “jolly puzzle books”. The same might be said of The Late Scholar. As such it passes muster.