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When authors get it wrong

We are all different. We value different things. Of all the things I look for most in a book, I think characterization is the most important. If I love the characters an author creates, I will keep buying the books, no matter what. If not, I am a lot pickier about where my money and my time go.

One of my all time favorite writers is Dorothy L. Sayers. I absolutely love the Lord Peter Wimsey books and stories. Lord Peter is a great character— funny, smart, brave, charming— and Sayers made him all the more real by having him actually mature as her novels progressed through his life. She must have loved him herself, because she created an avatar for herself in the person of detective novelist Harriet Vane, a woman of good background with, for that time, a scandal in her past, as a romantic match for Lord Peter. Harriet's background lines up almost perfectly with Sayers' own, except that Sayers took the path so many writers take (as I have myself) and made her fictional self a good deal thinner. Lord Peter meets Harriet, falls instantly for her, and courts her through several books until they finally marry. As Sayers was so inconsiderate as to die some years after she stopped writing Lord Peter stories, I had thought I would never read another one, but a writer named Jill Patton Walsh was invited by the estate of Sayer's son (not her husband's son; see scandal reference above) to wrap up Sayer's last, unfinished Lord Peter novel Thrones, Dominations. I have not read that one yet (it's not on Kindle), but I went ahead and bought the second of Walsh's efforts at collaborating, The Presumption of Death. Sayers only contributions to the second book are the letters from various Wimseys that frame the story, which is set in World War II.

I did not bother with the free sample feature because I knew I wanted the book. I enjoyed the story in spite of the fact that Walsh somehow ignored the Lord Peter canon and gave him two sons instead of three! And I noted a less serious error, one that a copy editor should surely have caught. A minor character starts as Roger Birdlap and then somehow becomes John Birdlap. I really wonder whether the print version had that error, too, or whether the Kindle version was created from a pre-copyedit version.

Walsh had the benefit of Sayers having created a character I love; and to be fair, she does an excellent job maintaining the overall style and voice of the Lord Peter books. When her first Lord Peter book comes out on Kindle, I will almost certainly buy it. Debut author Charles Finch is less lucky. I read a brief but favorable review of his book A Beautiful Blue Death, a mystery set in London in the 1860's. I got the free sample and started reading. Within a few pages, Charles Lenox's manservant refers to his neighbor as Lady Grey. However, a few paragraphs later, detective Lenox thinks of her as Lady Jane Grey.

She can be one or the other but not both! How can someone set a story in England and include titled characters and not bother to learn how the titles are used? A woman is called Lady and her first name when her father is a duke, a marquis, or an earl. She keeps that honorary title, even after marriage, unless her husband's rank is high enough to trump it. She would be called "Lady Grey" if her husband was Sir Somebody Grey (a baronet) or Baron Grey or Earl Grey.

I kept reading but Finch was fighting against my ire. Unfortunately, the free sample was really short— not even the first chapter— so I didn't get sucked into the story or the characters enough to overlook the glaring error. I never even got to meet Lady Jane Grey or find out which should be her proper title. Ergo, I did not buy that book!

Moral: when working outside their native settings, writers should get expert advice. And free samples should be long enough to suck in the reader or what are they good for?





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