P. D. James Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2886

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...

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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 characterization. Gender is the most obvious but least interesting difference between Dalgliesh and Gray. Dalgliesh is brooding and introspective; Gray’s sunny nature is the direct antithesis, despite her unfortunate background (she was brought up in a series of foster homes). She is a truth seeker and, like William Shakespeare’s Cordelia, a truth teller. Dalgliesh and Gray are alike in their cleverness and competence. Their paths occasionally cross, and a friendly rivalry exists between them. Naturally, some readers have hoped that romance will blossom for the two detectives. James addressed this matter in a 1977 essay, “Ought Adam to Marry Cordelia?” She concludes that such a marriage, arranged in fictional heaven by a godlike author, would be too cheap a trick.

The Black Tower

The Black Tower (1975) is another narrative set in a health care facility. This time, it is an isolated nursing home, the Grange, located near sheer cliffs above the sea. The black tower is an incongruous edifice built near the cliffs by a former owner of the estate that the nursing home now occupies. The tower, like Nightingale House in Shroud for a Nightingale, is a symbol for the palpable evil that inhabits the place. James clearly believes in evil as an entity, not merely as an unfortunate misbalance of social forces. One of the five murder victims is a priest, killed just after he has heard confession. James examines each of the residents and staff members of the Grange and the phobias and compulsions they take such pains to disguise. Dalgliesh identifies the vicious killer but almost loses his life in the process.

Death of an Expert Witness

In Death of an Expert Witness (1977), James’s seventh novel, Dalgliesh again probes the secrets of a small group of coworkers and their families. The setting this time is a laboratory that conducts forensic examinations. As James used her nineteen years of experience as a hospital administrative assistant to render the setting of Shroud for a Nightingale totally convincing, she uses her seven years of work in the crime department of the Home Office to the same effect in Death of an Expert Witness.

The laboratory in which the expert witness is killed serves as a focal point for a fascinating cast of characters. Ironically, a physiologist is murdered while he is examining physical evidence from another murder (which is not a part of Dalgliesh’s investigation). The dead man leaves behind a rather vacant, superannuated father, who lived in the house with him. The principal suspect is a high-strung laboratory assistant, whom the deceased bullied and gave an unsatisfactory performance rating. The new director of the laboratory has an attractive but cruel and wanton sister, with whom he has a relationship that is at least latently incestuous. In addition, Dalgliesh investigates a lesbian couple (one of whom becomes the novel’s second murder victim); a melancholy physician who performs autopsies for the police and whose unpleasant wife has just left him; the physician’s two curious children (the elder girl being very curious indeed); a middle-aged babysitter who is a closet tippler; and a crooked police officer who is taking advantage of a love-starved young woman of the town. In spinning out her complex narrative, James draws on her intimate knowledge of police procedure, evidential requirements in the law, and criminal behavior.

A Taste for Death

Nine years passed before Commander Adam Dalgliesh returned in A Taste for Death (1986). In this novel, Dalgliesh heads a newly formed squad charged with investigating politically sensitive crimes; he is assisted by the aristocratic Chief Inspector John Massingham and a new recruit, Kate Miskin. Kate is bright, resourceful, and ambitious. Like Cordelia Gray, she has overcome an unpromising background: She is the illegitimate child of a mother who died shortly after her birth and a father she has never known. The title of the novel is evocative—it is not only the psychopathic killer who has a taste for death, but also Dalgliesh and his subordinates, the principal murder victim himself, and, surprisingly, a shabby High Church Anglican priest, reminiscent of one of Graham Greene’s failed clerics.

When Sir Paul Berowne, a Tory minister, is found murdered along with a tramp in the vestry of St. Matthew’s Church in London, Dalgliesh is put in charge of the investigation. These murders seem linked to the deaths of two young women previously associated with the Berowne household. The long novel (more than 450 pages) contains the usual array of suspects, hampering the investigation with their evasions and outright lies, but, in typical James fashion, each is portrayed in three dimensions. The case develops an additional psychological complication when Dalgliesh identifies with a murder victim for the first time in his career and a metaphysical complication when he discovers that Berowne recently underwent a profound religious experience at St. Matthew’s, one reportedly entailing stigmata. Perhaps the best examples of James’s method of characterization are the elderly never-married woman and the ten-year-old boy of the streets who discover the bodies in chapter 1. In the hands of most other crime writers, these characters would have been mere plot devices, but James gives them a reality that reminds the reader how deeply a murder affects everyone associated with it in any way.

Devices and Desires

Devices and Desires (1989) finds Dalgliesh on vacation in a fictional seacoast town in Norfolk, England. James reports that this story started—as most of her work does—with setting, in this case the juxtaposition of a huge nuclear power plant with the seemingly centuries-unchanged view of the North Sea from a Suffolk shore. Here, with the reactor towering over daily life and concerns, Dalgliesh, set somewhat at a remove by being out of his jurisdiction, is surrounded by a typically P. D. Jamesian set of fully realized, difficult characters—all suspects in a grisly set of murders when the murderer turns up murdered.

Original Sin

Though Cordelia Gray has not been in evidence since The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), Kate Miskin appears—indeed, more than Dalgliesh—in both Original Sin (1994) and A Certain Justice (1997). Set at an ailing literary press, Original Sin is densely woven with engaging characters and intricate patterns of relationship—a fact that is pleasing to some readers, frustrating to others, for whom the lack of a central focus, that is, the more constant presence of the detective generally expected in the genre, is disorienting. It is in this particular that James most stretches the bounds of mystery. Her detectives are certainly present, but only as another thread in the whole cloth.

A Certain Justice

This same method met with little in the way of criticism in A Certain Justice. Though, again, neither Commander Dalgliesh or Inspector Kate Miskin provide a “central focus,” the sustained power and depth of the novel’s unfolding depiction of potent themes—passion, neglect, ambition, morality and the law—provides far more. Indeed, Original Sin has ties, thematically and formally, to James’s Innocent Blood (1980), which, while concerned with murder and vengeance, is not a detective story.

Innocent Blood

Innocent Blood is a novel unlike any of James’s others. Although it tells a tale of murder and vengeance, it is not a detective story. It is in the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912)—serious novels, each featuring a murder as the focal point for the characters’s spiritual and psychological conflicts. In form, Innocent Blood resembles yet another classic Russian novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886). It features dual protagonists (such as Anna and Levin in Tolstoy’s narrative) who proceed through the novel along separate paths. They finally meet at the melodramatic (uncharacteristically so) climax.

The Children of Men

Though it contains a horrible murder and a desperate chase, The Children of Men (1992) is not a detective story either, but James’s first foray into science fiction. A near-future story set in the England of 2021, it postulates a world in which male fertility has entirely failed since the last child was born in 1995. Society has devolved to a chaotic barbarity. The old are encouraged to commit mass suicide, while the young are licensed to violent behavior. Hope appears in the form of the pregnancy of a member of the dissident underground, who is soon on the run from the dictatorial powers that be. Perhaps the least successful of her books, The Children of Men is nevertheless rewarding for the fully realized future world that James depicts and was the basis for the film Children of Men in 2006.

The Lighthouse

The relationship between Dalgliesh and Miskin never evolved into the romantic partnership many readers hoped for. In a plot twist that dates The Lighthouse (2005) as surely as its copyright, SARS intervenes. Dalgliesh is stricken with the virus and sidelined from the investigation as Miskin takes over. The convalescing detective does indeed reconcile himself to marriage, but to Emma Lavenham, a recurring character who first appeared in Death in Holy Orders (2001). Many critics and readers speculated that the apparent resolution of the series’ running subplots signaled the end of the Dalgliesh books, though the author’s creative powers at age eighty-five seemed undiminished.

Though James is known principally as a novelist, she is also a short-story writer and a playwright. Her short works, though scant in number, have found a wide audience through publication in such popular periodicals as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Critics generally agree that James requires the novel form to show her literary strengths to best advantage. For example, “The Victim,” though a fine short story, is still primarily of interest as the microcosmic precursor of Innocent Blood. James’s sole play, A Private Treason, was first produced in London on March 12, 1985.

Some critics have purported to detect a slight antifeminist bias in James’s work. This impression probably derives from the fact that James is one of the more conservative practitioners of an essentially conservative genre. The action of all her novels proceeds from that most extreme form of antisocial behavior, murder. Murders are committed by human beings, and James’s manner of probing their personalities is more like that of another James, Henry James, than like that of her fellow crime writers. Dalgliesh muses in A Taste for Death that he has learned, like most people, to accept and carry his load of guilt through life. The murderers that he so relentlessly pursues have not.

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