Peter Dickinson Essay - Critical Essays


Peter Dickinson’s Pibble novels, while they may be classified technically as police procedurals, do not fit comfortably into that niche. Pibble is a Scotland Yard detective, but by contrast to the more conventional detectives of the genre, he generally works alone, and his investigations do not consistently adhere to realistic police methods. Although Pibble does a fair amount of evidence gathering, fingerprinting, and so on, he more often than not solves his cases by way of inspired leaps of intuition underlaid by a subtle and painstaking process of deduction.

A more radical distinction may be drawn between the character of Pibble and the police detectives of the Golden Age of crime fiction that preceded World War II: the somewhat dimwitted plodders, such as Agatha Christie’s Inspector Battle, forever outclassed by the brilliance of Hercule Poirot, or the idealized and heroic police detectives who, like Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn, are often from aristocratic backgrounds. Pibble conforms to neither type. He is from a lower-middle-class background and is far from heroic in any conventional sense. However, neither is he dimwitted or plodding. He is possessed of a retentive memory for details, is well-read and an avid crossword puzzler, and often displays flashes of intuitive brilliance. Nevertheless, he frequently makes mistakes and, partly because of class insecurities, allows himself to be bullied by others, both police associates and suspects. Because Pibble is one of the most introspective investigators in the history of the police procedural, his thoughts and perceptions are at times labyrinthine as the reader follows him, often stumbling and seemingly lost, toward a final solution. Thus Pibble is to some extent a deliberate inversion of the heroic Golden Age model of the police detective.

Although the character of Pibble is the most distinguishing feature of the Pibble series, Dickinson’s crime scenes, which are often so bizarre as to verge on the surrealistic, are also notable. In The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest, for example, a small group of New Guineans is resettled in a London house, where their chief is brutally murdered. Dickinson cleverly interweaves the story of Pibble’s investigation of the murder with the story of the group’s life in New Guinea and the events leading up to its migration to England. Equally unconventional is the fourth novel in the series, Sleep and His Brother (1971), in which a recently retired Pibble is drawn into a series of baffling events occurring on the premises of a country house near London, now remodeled and serving as an institution for the care of children suffering from a rare disease that may also produce paranormal powers.

Although it is difficult to generalize about Dickinson’s nonseries mysteries, most of them may be loosely classified as historical fiction. Typically, they begin in the present but seek to unravel some mystery—usually a murder—that remains hidden in the past. Often, the past that these elegant mysteries explore is the period of the Golden Age of crime fiction, and the setting for these hidden crimes is a country house reminiscent of the country house settings of Golden Age fiction. However, whereas authors like Christie and Marsh portrayed that world as essentially static and its hierarchical social world still intact, Dickinson reconstructs that same world from a post-World War II perspective, allowing signs of its disintegration to become more apparent. Most representative of these historical reconstructions is The Last House Party (1982), much of which is set in a country manor.

The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest

The “ants” to which this The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest refers are a small tribe of New Guineans called the Ku. The reasons for their removal to England are revealed in fragments as the novel unfolds, in part through the narrative of Dr. Eve Ku, the English daughter of a missionary to New Guinea, who grew up there and has become a member of the tribe. Before the tribe was removed from New Guinea during World War II, its members had almost all become Christians. However, the degree to which the men of the tribe have accepted a Christian and more “civilized” way of life in England becomes a thematic issue explored at some length by Dickinson. Dr. Ku, whom the tribe regards as a man, is an anthropologist and is working on a study of the tribe’s customs. Thus her position in the tribe is ambiguous; she is both participant in and observer of the customs she studies.

The major weakness of this novel is that the solution to the murder of the chief, Aaron, is only tangentially related to its anthropological theme. This weakness is offset somewhat by the fact that the men of the tribe become major suspects in the investigation when Pibble discovers that they have secretly begun to resurrect their pre-Christian practices, largely...

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