P. D. James

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P. D. James World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3798

A skilled novelist, eloquent and erudite, influenced by the introspective style of Jane Austen and the Victorian novelists, P. D. James is one of England’s most prominent mystery writers. Her works are restrained, their internal tensions resulting from close associates facing painful and unforgiving inquiries into secret fears and obsessions. Keen and inquiring, James faces unpleasant truths about human frailty, the complex and sometimes self-destructive relationships among people, and humankind’s potential for psychic and physical violence. Kindly characters murder to protect family, hearth, or reputation, and innocent suspects prove culpable of lesser and greater transgressions. Despite credible plots, meticulously provided clues, and convincing details and motives, “Whodunit?” is secondary to ambience and character, the creation of a realistic world of professionals whose jealousies and rivalries in the close confines of narrow communities produce Byzantine relationships.

James’s novels build on a strong sense of place, inspired by a desolate coastline, a sinister house, an atmospheric London neighborhood, and such closed communities as a nursing home, an isolated village or island, a publishing house, a nuclear power station, a forensic science laboratory, and a small, specialized museum—each location transformed into an organic and vital element of the crime. For example, the personnel of her hierarchical medical communities share a language and a professional mystery that leave patients vulnerable outsiders. In A Mind to Murder (1963), a stately Georgian home turned psychiatric outpatient clinic provides an ironic counterpoint to sinister events. Toynton Grange in The Black Tower (1975), a nursing home, commune, hotel, monastery, and eccentric lunatic asylum, reflects the bleak desolation of the Dorset coast. In Devices and Desires, a nuclear power plant dominates a coastal town and its inhabitants. Shroud for a Nightingale (1971) most effectively draws analogies between a nurse’s training center and a Nazi prison camp to demonstrate the ambiguous nature of rules and of human beings. The Lighthouse is set on an island retreat for influential public figures, while The Murder Room takes place in and around a small private war museum on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath.

Such settings, with their narrow communities, enable James to make her murder investigations turn on relationships and routines arising from place. The initial murder in Shroud for a Nightingale, for example, results from student nurses who, while practicing intragastric feeding, witness a ghastly, nightmarish death beyond their capacities to cope: carbolic acid added to warm milk in the inserted tube. In Death of an Expert Witness (1977), a despised physiologist is murdered in his lab while examining physical evidence from another murder. A suspect in Devices and Desires plunges to his death in the reactor room, the heart of a nuclear power plant whose dangerous force feeds the latent heart of darkness in those associated with it. James’s writing captures the “minutiae of ordinary life”: the internal rivalries, the jockeying for advancement up the bureaucratic ladder, the unhappy home lives, the daily pressures, the jealousies, the petty strife. James’s later works examine dysfunctional families (in particular, parent-child relationships that go awry), the failures of social institutions, and the ambiguous mix of good and evil.

All of James’s highly visual novels communicate a sense of an intricate mind at work, meticulously and precisely calculating every twist of plot. James keeps an hour-by-hour chart of her characters so that each detail fits logically and each piece of physical evidence is psychologically right. Her style is leisurely, with intricately woven sentences reflecting the complex musings of intelligent, but not always reliable, characters. Her narrator is third person—the omniscient author, a particular character, even the murderer. Her easy movement from one perspective to another adds a rich, varied texture to detailed descriptions of place and personality. Her metaphors evoke bleak wastelands; her characters casually allude to William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy and talk of murder while taking tea, admiring a rose garden, or debating the esoteric conundrums of theological schisms. Overall, character study outweighs action, but in the final analysis the realities of human motive prove to some degree too complex to be fully known; even as they act, her characters often fail to understand themselves.

James explores complex interpersonal relationships, stress, and psychological consistency. Her respectable middle-class characters, literate and cultured, prove to be consumed by hidden emotions and desperate to preserve their facade of respectability or the reputations of those dearest to them. James’s victims are often disagreeable—selfish, narcissistic, lascivious, greedy, hot-tempered, catty, or even senile; her killers appear normal on the surface but are really emotionally maimed, beset by secret torments that ultimately evoke sympathy and pity—an abused childhood, a sexual compulsion, a tragic loss, failed relationships. Her plots frequently include apparent suicides, accidents, or natural deaths that prove to be murders and interlocking or copycat crimes.

Her main detective, Adam Dalgliesh, brings critical intelligence, sensitivity, and professionalism to his job. A “lonely man in a lonely profession,” an agnostic grounded in Anglican theology, he observes the bleakness of the human condition and sees himself as an instrument of justice. Tall, dark, morose, and sometimes testy, he is the son of a London clergyman, versed in articles of faith, but a born skeptic whose distrust of simple creeds was deepened by the tragic death of his wife in childbirth. Well-read and introspective, he internalizes his horror at unnatural death and comes to terms with it through poetry (titling one volume Invisible Scars) and through enforcing a civilizing legal code. Ever compassionate, he is not sentimental. A private man with personal compulsions, he avoids deep emotional attachments until his transforming encounter with Emma Lavenham, a Cambridge professor of Victorian literature, in Death in Holy Orders. Their relationship deepens in The Lighthouse, and Dalgliesh proposes marriage to Emma in The Murder Room. Dalgliesh is brutally honest, patient, ruthless, and unorthodox—a master interrogator with an instinct for asking the right questions to uncover evil but also an effective leader of a police detective team, bringing out the best in those under him (Inspectors Kate Miskin, Piers Tarrant, and Francis Benton-Smith, and Detective Sergeant Robbins). His determined quest for the truth of his cases speeds his rise from detective chief-inspector to commander, as in his daily life he seeks to bring order to chaos.

Cordelia Gray, the sleuth introduced in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), is a cordial rival to Dalgliesh, who shares his love of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, old churches, and fine art. Though sensitive to human responses, calm, and detached amid mayhem, Gray is Dalgliesh’s opposite in optimism and hope, remaining spunky, self-reliant, upbeat, good-natured, and capable despite a series of foster homes and her father’s suicide.

Overall, a James novel, with its dense prose, shrewdly realized characterization, and sound plotting examines human interaction, rationalization, and despair with a unique combination of compassionate understanding and uncompromising analysis.

Innocent Blood

First published: 1980

Type of work: Novel

An adoptee seeking self-identity discovers the painful truth of her parentage and unknowingly becomes part of a revenge plot.

The title, Innocent Blood, refers to a twelve-year-old girl who is lured into the home of a pedophile, raped, and then strangled by the molester’s wife. It also suggests a second victim, eighteen-year-old Philippa Rose Palfrey, an adoptee burdened by her natural parents’ crime. Adopted before the murder occurred, the intelligent but difficult Philippa is adoptive father/sociologist Maurice Palfrey’s living proof of nurture countering genetics. Her blood is not shed, but she must confront her parents’ guilt. Ironically, she proves far more cold-blooded and ruthlessly egocentric than either parent, and her rejection of her long-suffering, docile mother results in the final bloodshed. James’s narrative skill and deft psychological analysis suggest that the final “innocent” blood shed is that of the murderess/mother, who commits suicide when rejected by the daughter she has come to love and on whom she has come to depend.

Innocent Blood grew out of James’s musings, on a real murder case, about a child’s knowledge of parental culpability and about the potentially disastrous effects of the Children Act of 1975, which permitted adoptees to learn the identity of their natural parents. Not a detection or a crime novel, it shares the detective story’s interest in guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, love and revenge. Despite her fine education and comfortable home, Philippa fantasizes about her real parents when irritated by her adoptive ones. In a sociological and psychological experiment of the sort she accuses Maurice of indulging in, she finds, and, for the summer months before entering Cambridge, takes in, her real mother, Mary Ducton, a murderess just released from prison. Her act purposefully thwarts Maurice, whose approval and love she seeks, and dismisses her adoptive mother, Hilda, whose timidity and lack of self-worth she scorns.

As mother and daughter share a small London flat, work together in a restaurant, spend time on “educational” tours of museums and galleries, and seek intimate moments of self-revelation (a program Philippa establishes and her mother passively accepts), the father of the murdered child, Norman Scase, dogs their steps, bent on revenge in fulfillment of a deathbed promise to his wife. James skillfully interweaves the two plotlines—the golden youth searching for identity, the ugly, bumbling, and sweet-tempered but driven older man seeking release from a haunting obligation—drawing them closer and closer as the man becomes as obsessed with Philippa as he is with killing her mother. Ironically, at the moment of final vengeance, Scase finds his act thwarted, the murderess already dead, a victim of her own guilt and rejection by her only child. When his knife plunges into her throat, she has already stolen away the life he seeks. Philippa, recognizing her personal responsibility for her mother’s death, protects Scase from the police.

James’s basic argument is that identity comes from within, that parents provide few clues about their progeny, and that relinquishing necessary fantasies can bring “a kind of death.” Philippa is more the daughter of Maurice than of her real parents, sharing his intellectual distancing, cold disdain for weakness, and narcissistic self-absorption. Maurice’s marital and sexual conflicts are but psychological responses to Philippa. A final brief, incestuous affair frees them from their mutual obsession and allows a more normal life thereafter. One set of fantasies, purged by reality, is replaced by another; even Mary Ducton’s long, careful confession reworks reality to win back her daughter. According to James, a person’s account of his or her life is an interesting psychological study, but it is not reality.

Questions of guilt and innocence shade into blurred grays, with the “criminals” proving to be sad, pitiable victims of physical compulsions or of traumatic childhoods, and with the “innocents” proving disturbingly culpable. Environment outweighs heredity in molding individuals, but some sort of unique, individual personality proves to be the true final determiner.

A Taste for Death

First published: 1986

Type of work: Novel

The violent deaths of an important political figure and a lowly tramp endanger a young witness and a fledgling investigator.

The title A Taste for Death suggests a murderer whose appetite for power increases with each murderous act. It refers more particularly to Sir Paul Berowne, the murdered Tory minister who, weighed down with guilt at the automobile death of his first wife, had lost his taste for public life, undergone a religious conversion, abandoned a flourishing political career, and accepted death. It encompasses Detective Dalgliesh’s questions about his and his profession’s obsession with violent death, as well as Lady Barbara Berowne’s taste for death (she enjoys the “power,” “mystery,” and “ruthlessness” of her gynecologist/surgeon/lover, Stephen Lampart, whose hands determine a patient’s life or death). Even the local vicar at whose picturesque church the murders occur finds himself and his congregation infected by a taste for death.

In this dense and detailed police procedural and novel of manners, Dalgliesh heads a homicide squad assigned to investigate politically sensitive crimes, assisted by the conservative, opinionated, and able but jealous John Massingham and a bright new recruit, Kate Miskin, whose resourcefulness and ambition irritate Massingham but impress Dalgliesh. James explores the sacrifices and compromises that Miskin, as a career policewoman, must make to maintain a personal life, fulfill family obligations to her aged and contrary mother, and escape the poverty and illegitimacy that have fueled her ambition. This case involves Dalgliesh personally, for he not only liked the murdered Berowne, having consulted him about blackmail, but also finds that he and the victim had much in common. Both were cultured, private men, dedicated to preserving civilization and art, schooled in language and literature, and aware of ambiguous human relationships and of the need for commitment to enduring values. Interested in church architecture, nineteenth century novelists and poets, and philosophical questions of life and death, both had a cerebral, detached way of coping.

This close study of the frustrations and precision of police procedures and of the intelligence and instincts that transform the minutiae into details of great investigative moment depends on a single bloodstain under a corpse, a struck match, a moved diary, and a missing button. James’s argument throughout her depiction of the investigation—the gathering of physical evidence, the taking of testimonies, the checking and rechecking of alibis—is that murder changes everyone it touches; investigators, suspects, and witnesses can never be the same. Mother, wife, mistress, friends, brother-in-law, and business associates cannot escape the questions that lay bare their secret hearts. Dalgliesh is aware that murder destroys privacy through “the intimate detritus” of a victim’s life and “through the mouths, truthful, treacherous, faltering, reluctant” of family, friends, and enemies; he also knows that “exploitation” of a suspect’s fear, vanity, insecure need to confide, and lonely grief is “at the heart of successful detection.” Disturbed by the activities of his trade, he nonetheless recognizes their necessity. Actions bring consequences and the burdens of guilt and responsibility must be accepted.

Here again James explores the effects of environment on adolescents. Kate Miskin escapes her origins through hard work and sheer grit; Barbara Berowne escapes similar limitations through cold-blooded sexuality, producing a legitimate heir. Barbara’s brother, Dominic Swayne, warped by a loveless childhood and a succession of stepfathers, seduces an unattractive household servant to confirm an alibi, feigns friendship to win trust, and hides murder behind a facade of frankness to assure a continued life of luxury. Tough, competent, ten-year-old Darren Wilkes, in turn, controls his environment, despite an alcoholic, prostitute mother, by attaching himself to the kindly sixty-five-year-old spinster, Miss Emily Wharton, whose safety he guards as they provide each other with companionship. Sarah Berowne, in contrast, wealthy and aristocratic, opts for an affair with a committed communist to embarrass her aloof, reticent father.

Ironically, the murderer helps each of these characters: killing Miskin’s contrary mother but freeing Miskin from a limiting psychological and economic burden that prevented her commitment to love and career; frightening young Darren but thereby calling attention to an unnoted illness, leukemia; forcing Sarah to realize the obligations of birth and education, reevaluate her relationship to her lover, and understand that she has been a pawn of the radical left; and seemingly confirming Barbara as heir of the Berowne fortune, an inheritance that her suspicious mother-in-law and wary husband thwart.

A Taste for Death is, moreover, replete with convincing details of place and scene: a cold and muddy river bank, a clinically antiseptic operating room, the pleasant cottage of a writer of children’s books, the tidy apartment of the upwardly mobile young Kate, the stately manor of the Tory minister, and the Romanesque basilica where the murder occurs.

The Children of Men

First published: 1992

Type of work: Novel

In 2021, amid worldwide male infertility, a disillusioned historian defies a tyrannical government to secure the safety of the first child born since 1995.

The phrase “children of God” suggests divine guidance, human potential, and the hope of redemption, while James’s title The Children of Men, a derogatory phrase reminiscent of Old Testament diction, suggests human frailty, a fall from grace, impermanence, and the dark side of the human spirit—cruelty, violence, and a lust for power. In an age in which no child has been born in twenty-six years, adults burdened by guilty pasts face the nightmarish end of the human species. Human achievements lose their grandeur and their potential to inspire as they meld into the landscape. It is a time for Ozymandian contemplation, carpe diem, and a human accounting before the world’s demise. Such are the thoughts of Oxford historian and erudite narrator Theodore Faron, who escapes responsibility for the present by taking a slow journey, revisiting European centers of art and architecture in the interim between the two sections of James’s novel. In this science-fiction vision of the very near future, James reverses their standard order to identify the first part, “Book One: Omega,” and the second part, “Book Two: Alpha.”

Thus, book 1 depicts a dystopian winding down, a retrenching of human civilizations, a movement from rural isolation to urban security, and an increasingly powerful and tyrannical government and military, as roving bands of bacchanalian thugs engage in sadistic sacrificial rites, and, in general, the threads of morality and social structure break. In England, Faron’s cousin, a power-proud First Warden, makes life and death decisions, condemning rebellious citizens to terrifying island penal colonies where the inmates rule, approving military-assisted mass suicides, and in every instance governing with an iron fist. In effect, James’s speculation queries how far national control might be extended under the guise of protecting the citizenry from terrorist-labeled activities. She also envisions heightened psychoses, as frustrated women fake pregnancies and fantasize about motherhood.

Faron’s understanding of history, his delight in the Victorian past, and his love of Jane Austen (Emma is the book he chooses for his defiant journey with revolutionaries), provide a distanced, scholarly, ironic study of the times, and his past association with the present ruler enables him to provide a contrast in psychologies between himself and his cousin, to analyze the journey that led his cousin to this power, and to predict his behavior in the face of mystery.

The mystery of book 2, a morality tale, echoes the religious story of Mary and the Infant Jesus pursued by Herod and protected by an awed band of worshippers, in this case people willing to die themselves so that mother and child can thrive. The action therein moves forward like a mystery as well, with traitors whose egos take dominance over philosophical commitments, and with a final murder that changes the future and forces a decent man to step into a power he has not wanted—for the good of humankind. Ironically, it is the only known fertile male who sacrifices himself for his infant. The story ends with hope for regeneration tempered by an understanding of the fallen nature of humankind that requires justice, as well as mercy. In this way, James’s take on the future is in keeping with the hard truths of her detective fiction—so much awry in human nature and yet some hope based on frail, unlikely humans who stand up when it counts. The ambiguous mix of hope and cynicism at the end is meant to leave readers pondering the way in which good intentions can be turned awry in politics, as in daily life.

Death in Holy Orders

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Dalgliesh’s informal investigation of a troubling death leads to his formal investigation of the murder of an archbishop and its complex ramifications.

The title Death in Holy Orders refers directly to the mystery setting, the isolated and very traditional Protestant theological seminary of St. Anselms, on the bleak East Anglian coast. The seminary is the scene of the unexplained death of a troubled young ordinand and the later murder of a self-righteous archbishop, who was determined to close down the establishment as archaic and redundant and sell its valuable artworks and relics. Both of the dead are in Holy Orders, and every clue that Inspector Dalgliesh and his London team uncover suggests an insider at work, wearing a seminarian’s cloak, opening doors with keys left in-house, and acting in times and places that require local knowledge of schedules and habits.

For Dalgliesh, the setting holds special meaning, since he spent part of his youth there. He experiences a deep nostalgia for those summer days, rediscovers close ties to the former warden, the elderly and devout Father Martin, and finds peace and rest in this place. Thus, he feels comfortable asking questions about the troubled youth who perished beneath a sudden fall of sand from the cliff above him. James introduces the players, the conflicts, the relationships, and the building tensions with Dalgliesh on the spot observing, rather than coming in after murder has been clearly committed. Amid talk of religious art and of the controversy surrounding a papyrus fragment that could shake the foundations of Christianity, Dalgliesh suddenly finds himself in the midst of multiple murders that strike at the heart of this small, pious community. Although three deaths arouse Dalgliesh’s intuitive suspicions, it is the murder of the archbishop that provides the impetus for calling in his London team. Once on the spot, they and he uncover some of the nasty secrets behind the innocent facades: pedophilia, incest, lesbianism, and greed, red herrings that distract from the main offense. With almost everyone lying to some degree or simply failing to tell all they know because they do not realize the significance of minor observations, progression toward a swift resolution proves difficult.

The power of this novel lies less in the uncovering of responsibility and more in the ruminative journey through multiple, interconnected lives. Through varied characters, with sensitivity and insight, James examines the painful realities of aging—the diminishing of physical abilities; the loss of memory and order in the descent to senility; the steady whittling away of human ties, yet the need for companionship; the haunting memories of past wrongs and personal failures; the decline of authority; the yielding to change; and the instinct to relive one’s dreams through one’s children by controlling the directions of their lives. Her young people, in turn, are thoughtless, insensitive, impulsive, and defiant but also conflicted, needy, and directionless. It is only her mature adults, like Dalgliesh and Emma, who can enjoy the memories of their youth and, with maturity and hope, seize life when it unexpectedly offers fulfilling possibilities, like the love and trust they share after only brief encounters. The romance between Dalgliesh and Emma that begins in this book progresses through James’s next two novels, The Murder Room and The Lighthouse.

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P. D. James Long Fiction Analysis


James, P(hyllis) D(orothy)