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P. D. James

P. D. James Essay - Critical Essays

P. D. James Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Cover Her Face is the exception that proves the rule—the rule being, in this case, that P. D. James eschews the country weekend murders of her predecessors, with their leisure-class suspects who have little more to do than chat with the visiting sleuth and look guilty. Cover Her Face is set in a country house where a servant is murdered. The suspects are the inhabitants of the house and their guests from the city, who are attending an annual fete on the grounds. A detective from the outside, Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, is called in to sort through the clues and solve the crime. This superficial description of the novel makes it sound very much like many an Agatha Christie story, and in her first book James may have felt more comfortable treading familiar literary ground. James has said, however, that comparisons of her to Christie are basically unwarranted. She likens herself more to Dorothy L. Sayers in the light of her greater interest in personality and motivation than in the crime puzzle itself.

James was from the very beginning a writer of great restraint. She almost never allows herself the luxury of self-indulgence. The old saw that first novels are largely autobiographical seems to apply to Cover Her Face in one detail only. The master of the house is bedfast, and his wife, daughter, and an old housekeeper have for a long time attended him lovingly and selflessly. James’s own husband was an invalid for many years before his death. After Cover Her Face, James turned to another kind of setting for her novels.

A Mind to Murder

As a result of her employment James had extensive contact with physicians, nurses, civil servants, police officials, and magistrates. A murder mystery ordinarily requires a closed society that limits the number of suspects, but James uses her experience to devise settings in the active world, where men and women are busily pursuing their vocations. The setting for A Mind to Murder, for example, is a London psychiatric clinic. The administrative officer of the Steen Clinic is murdered in the basement record room in an appropriately bizarre manner (bludgeoned, then stabbed through the heart with a chisel) and in death she clutches to her breast a heavy wood-carved fetish from the therapy room. Yet quite apart from Dalgliesh’s unraveling of the murder mystery, the reader enjoys the intricacies of the clinic’s internal politics that underlie the plot throughout. The psychotherapists are devotees variously of psychoanalysis, electroshock treatments, and art therapy and have been conducting a cold war against one another for years. The staff psychologist, social worker, nurses, medical secretaries, and custodians have ambitions, intrigues, and grudges of their own. As a longtime civil servant herself, James knows that no matter how exotic someone’s death, one question immediately excites the deceased’s colleagues: Who will fill the vacant job?

Adam Dalgliesh

Although it is an early work, A Mind to Murder features a surprise ending so cleverly conceived that it does not seem at all like a cheap device. In the novels that have followed, James has shown an increasing mastery of the labyrinthine murder-and-detection plot. This mastery affords the principal pleasure to one large group of her readers. A second group of readers most admires the subtlety and psychological validity of her characterizations. Critics have often remarked that James, more than almost any other modern mystery writer, has succeeded in overcoming the limitations of the genre. In addition, she has created one of the more memorable progeny of Sherlock Holmes.

Like Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Adam Dalgliesh is a sleuth whose personality is at least as interesting as his skill in detection. The deaths of his wife and son have left him bereft of hope and intensely aware of the fragility of people’s control over their own lives. Only the rules that humankind has painstakingly fashioned over the centuries can ward off degeneration and annihilation. Those who murder contribute to the world’s disorder and hasten the ultimate collapse of civilization. Dalgliesh will catch them and see that they are punished.

Dalgliesh leads a lonely but not a celibate life. He is romantically involved for a time with Deborah Riscoe, a character who appears in Cover Her Face and A Mind to Murder. Deborah is succeeded by other lovers, but James treats Dalgliesh’s amours obliquely. She has said that she agrees with Sayers’s position on such matters: A hero’s love affairs are no more the author’s business than anyone else’s. At any rate, Dalgliesh’s demanding nature, his self-sufficiency and icy reserve are as hard on the women in his life as on his associates in the department.

Dalgliesh is a discerning judge of character, and he knows that motivation flows from character. In fact, it is James’s treatment of motivation that sets her work apart from most mystery fiction. Her killers are often the emotionally maimed who, nevertheless, manage to function with an apparent normality. Beneath this facade, dark secrets torment the soul. James’s novels seem to suggest that danger is never far away in the most mundane setting, especially the workplace. Apart from her Byronic hero, she avoids all gothic devices, choosing instead to create a growing sense of menace just below the surface of everyday life. James’s murderers sometimes kill for gain, but more often they kill to avoid exposure of some sort.

Shroud for a Nightingale

Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), judged James’s best novel by some critics, is set in a nursing hospital near London. The student nurses and most of the staff are in permanent residence there. In this closed society, attachments—sexual and otherwise—are formed, rivalries develop, and resentments grow. When a student nurse is murdered during a teaching demonstration, Dalgliesh arrives to investigate. In the course of his investigation, he discovers that the murdered girl was a petty blackmailer, that a second student nurse (murdered soon after his arrival) was pregnant though unmarried and had engaged in an affair with a middle-aged surgeon, and that one member of the senior staff is committing adultery with the hospital pharmacist and another is homosexually attracted to one of her charges. At the root of the murders, however, is the darkest secret of all, a terrible sin that a rather sympathetic character has been attempting to both hide and expiate for more than thirty years. The murder weapon is poison, which serves also as a metaphor for the fear and suspicion that rapidly spreads through the insular world of the hospital.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), James introduces her second recurring protagonist. Cordelia Gray’s “unsuitable job” is that of private detective. Again, James avoids the formulized...

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