Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
P. D. James 1920–
(Full name Phyllis Dorothy James White) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of James's life and career. For further information about her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 18 and 46.
James is a respected...
(The entire section contains 62732 words.)
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- Critical Essays
P. D. James 1920–
(Full name Phyllis Dorothy James White) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of James's life and career. For further information about her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 18 and 46.
James is a respected crime and mystery writer who is credited with expanding the scope of the mystery genre. Although she makes use of elements of traditional detective fiction, James is particularly concerned with establishing the psychological motivations of her characters. James is also noted for her sophisticated prose style, highlighted by literary allusions and quotations, and her vivid, realistic characters and settings.
James was born in Oxford, England, in 1920. Her father was an Inland Revenue officer, and the family of five did not have much money. James had the opportunity to attend Cambridge Girls High School, but she ended her education when she left the school at the age of 16. Two years after the start of World War II, James married Dr. Connor Bantry White, who served during the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Her husband returned from the war suffering from extreme mental illness for which he had to be hospitalized. In order to support her two young daughters and herself, James took night classes in hospital administration and became an administrator working for the National Health Service. Her experience in the health field helped in the writing of Shroud for a Nightingale (1971) and The Black Tower (1975), which are both set in hospitals. James had always dreamed of becoming a writer and when she finally decided to try her hand at writing, she thought a mystery novel would be good practice for her. The novel, Cover Her Face (1962), was accepted by the first publisher to which she sent it. James decided that she liked the discipline of the detective genre, and continued to employ it in all but a few of her future novels. After her husband died in 1968, she transferred to the Department of Home Affairs, roughly equivalent to the United States Department of Justice. Her experience at this job helped with her to write knowledgeably about forensic science and police investigation. James eventually retired from civil service and became a local magistrate, in addition to continuing her writing career.
One of James's goals as a writer of detective fiction is to fulfill the elements of the genre and still employ the tools which make "serious fiction" satisfying. Her early novels, including Cover Her Face, A Mind to Murder (1963), Unnatural Causes (1967), and Shroud for a Nightingale, evidence her interest in realism. Although structured in traditional "whodunnit" fashion, these works rely on rounded credible characterizations that separate her work from that of the traditional "country house mystery" of traditional British detective fiction, in which static characters exist only to advance the plot of the mystery. Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh is the protagonist in each of these novels, as well as several of James's later books. A published poet as well as a police inspector, Dalgliesh is portrayed as a detached and devoted professional who is acutely sensitive to the emotions and motivations of the individuals he encounters in his work. The developments in Dalgliesh's private and professional life are engrossing subplots to the novels in which he is featured. In Devices and Desires (1989), Dalgliesh gets pulled into the investigation of a serial killer while vacationing on the Norfolk coast and resolving his late aunt's affairs. James focused less on Dalgliesh and his personal life in A Certain Justice (1997). In this novel, a barrister is murdered and her arrogance and cut-throat career climbing leaves a string of suspects. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). James introduces the character of Cordelia Grey, a female protagonist who is considerably different from Dalgliesh. Grey is a young, inexperienced private investigator who cannot rely on the resources of the police department. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman chronicles Grey's first investigation, in which she uncovers a murder originally believed to be a suicide. James departed from the detective genre in two novels. First in Innocent Blood (1980), a woman who was adopted as a child locates her real parents and discovers that her father was a rapist and her mother was a murderer. In The Children of Men (1992), James chronicles the extinction of the human race and the baby that may be its salvation.
Critics have conflicting views about James's proliferation of details in her novels. Some reviewers have praised her evocation of place through the use of description; others have found it a distraction to the action of the plot. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt complained that "so much of her scene-setting serves no other purpose than to create impenetrable atmosphere." Reviewers have noted that she effectively conveys the specifics of forensics and police investigation. Critics have consistently lauded James for giving readers more psychological depth than the average detective story. Commentators often note that James provides the motivation and larger human questions underlying the crimes in her novels, instead of simply presenting a neatly solved puzzle. Walter Wangerin, Jr. stated, "Plot, under Miss James's hand, is never merely external action. Always she explores character, the complexities of motive and thought and emotion; and always she wonders about the nature of humankind in general—this baffling admixture of good and evil, faith and failure, love and a murderous self-sufficiency." One aspect of her work often noted is the juxtaposition of the regular, ordered world presented in her novels and the disordered chaos wrought by the introduction of the crime. Ben Macintyre noted that "it is precisely the contrast between such external fastidiousness and the complex, sometimes depraved internal lives of James's characters that gives her books such emotive power." Some critics laud James for her feminist departure from the typical male detective through the character of Cordelia Grey. Many critics assert that James's work transcends the mystery genre because it contains the elements one looks for in a literary novel. However, a few have disagreed, contending that James represents the best of her genre because of what she has accomplished within the confinements of the detective story. Joyce Carol Oates concluded, "P. D. James does not 'transcend' genre; she refines, deepens, and amplifies it."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 83
Cover Her Face (novel) 1962
A Mind to Murder (novel) 1963
Unnatural Causes (novel) 1967
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811 [with Thomas A. Critchley] (nonfiction) 1971
Shroud for a Nightingale (novel) 1971
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (novel) 1972
The Black Tower (novel) 1975
Death of an Expert Witness (novel) 1977
Innocent Blood (novel) 1980
The Skull Beneath the Skin (novel) 1982
A Private Treason (play) 1985
A Taste for Death (novel) 1986
Devices and Desires (novel) 1989
The Children of Men (novel) 1992
Original Sin (novel) 1994
A Certain Justice (novel) 1997
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3748
SOURCE: "Interview with P. D. James," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 55-7, 92.
[In the following interview, James discusses her approach to crafting a mystery, her view on feminism, and how she wants to be remembered.]
P. D. James is a unique person in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that she has never had a rejection slip from an editor! With a typical touch of humor and a broad smile, she reported that as she prepared her first novel for submission, her children cautioned her that "All good writers can paper their walls with their rejection slips!" And then, when the book, Cover Her Face, was accepted by Faber and Faber, the first publisher to whom it was offered, the children's "confidence in the book was somewhat shaken. They felt good novels ought to be rejected!"
But the confidence of James's fans remains unshaken. Her six novels, Cover Her Face, 1962; A Mind to Murder, 1963; Unnatural Causes, 1967; Shroud for a Nightingale, 1971; An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, 1972; and The Black Tower, 1975, along with her short stories (two of which have won Ellery Queen prizes) have earned her a wide following among American as well as British readers of mystery-detective fiction. Her solid reputation as a careful crafts person, clever creator of plots, and shrewd commentator on human psychology is underscored not only by her work but also by her attitude toward it.
P. D. James, mystery novelist, is also Phyllis White, civil servant and mother. The mother of two grown daughters and the grandmother of four—two girls and two boys—James took a job in the civil service after World War II, when her husband returned from the military service permanently disabled. She began working for the National Health Service as an administrator, primarily doing mental health work. In 1968, after her husband's death, she transferred to the Home Office, "the Department of Home Affairs: it's a mixture, really, of the Department of Law and the Department of the Interior, concerned with law and order."
This juggling of two very demanding professions has several effects on her work. First, it provides her with a "certain amount of information." Time spent working in the Police Department taught her a good deal about police procedure, organization and crime investigation, and, through her work, she's also met forensic scientists, pathologists, who are a source of information. These sources, along with the careful library research she does, help guarantee the accuracy about forensic pathology the author considers absolutely necessary in crime fiction. But the main value of the job, perhaps any job, she feels, is that it keeps her in touch with a wide range of people, with the working world.
A second effect of the full time job is that her writing has to be done in her "spare" time, and that time consists primarily of the hours between 6:30 and 8:30 A.M. and the weekends. This kind of schedule, which also sometimes incorporates some hours of revision in the evenings, demands a good deal of self-discipline. Juggling this routine requires that the writer not bring her office responsibilities home with her, but James makes clear that she values both her careers:
I regard the writing as more important. The office is a way of earning a living; it is very safe and carries a pension at the end of it and is at the same time a demanding and very interesting job. Government is interesting; it brings me, though I'm not a very senior civil servant, in touch with Ministers of the Crown. It gives me an entree into the House of Commons and into the House of Lords during debates, and I see how policy is made. All this is fascinating to a writer. I think I'd been the poorer without it, but I like to think of myself as a writer who is also a civil servant.
The same sort of self-control which enables James to balance two exacting careers is reflected in her comments about the objectivity a writer must obtain in order to achieve a stance from which she can observe, interpret, and comment:
I think writers can always stand outside and observe, particularly novelists, whether they're observing culture or whether they're observing the interaction of human beings. One stands outside one's own experience even. One is able, even at moments of tragedy, to be watching it—to be suffering, even. I think this is essential to a writer. One is in society, as we all area, but at the same time detached and watching.
The emphasis on this tight schedule and the self-discipline and self-control it demands must not, however, overshadow the personal impression James gives. She is cheerful, open, communicative, and very well informed. Her laughter is warm and comes quickly to the surface, and though she says she's very like her central character, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, he does not display her ready wit and humor.
As one might expect, James's personality is reflected in her quarters. The living room of her London apartment is enlarged by high, white walls and the use of a wall-size mirror on the inner wall. Fronting on Dorset Square, the room, which incorporates a dining area, is very full, but uncrowded—a kind of symbol, perhaps, for James's life. The furniture is contemporary; the many feet of shelf space are filled with books (Trollope is a favorite) and bric-a-brac, some acquired at street markets. The walls carry pictures which combine family pieces and some "just collected because I liked them." The overall effect is pleasant and comfortable.
Just as the room is a place for thinking as well as a place for living and working, James is, as her readers well know, a thoughtful person. This contemplativeness was reflected in her comments when I asked her why the crime novel seems to be such a good metaphor for contemporary society. She began by revising the question:
Is it because, really, crime is such an individual act, a breaking out of convention? Really, we all walk some kind of psychological tightrope, and this is a stepping into space—
The fiction is the imposing of a moral order, where, apparently, there is none. But really, even if one feels impotent in the face of violence and tragedy and injustice in this world, somehow the pattern at the end of the novels does come right. Also, there's a completion; the circle is joined.
I think possibly, you know, its psychologically reassuring in the sense that it is a purging of guilt. That basically, when saying "Who done it?" that one can say, at least in this case, "Not I."
This awareness of humanity's common sense of guilt is reflected in the character Dalgliesh, who in Shroud for a Nightingale, for example, feels he ought to say to the murderer that he knows her because he knows himself. James agrees that we are all guilty of something, though perhaps not murder—of "deceptions, of meannesses, of failures in human relationships," and thus we can understand failings—even very terrible ones—in others. But the author draws a clear line between understanding and condoning wrongdoing. "I think there's a difference between the acknowledgment of a common humanity and a sentimentality about crime, which I don't personally share. I don't like sentimentality and hope my hero isn't sentimental!"
Dalgliesh is not sentimental, nor is he, like some fictitious detectives, infallible, but he is sensitive and he "reflects many of my views and attitudes to life, and I have a sympathy for him," James says, pointing out that one wouldn't go on writing "about a man if one didn't quite admire him or at least sympathize with him." She perceives him as
a very detached man, essentially a very lonely man in a lonely profession, one which brings him into contact with tragedy, with evil. At the same time, he has the sensitivity of a poet, which I think makes him a complex character and the reconciliation of these two very different facets of his character is interesting.
Beginning with this view of the human condition and with this concept of her central character, James then projects him, in each novel, into a closed society, which not only produces a clearly defined locale, but which also generates interest:
I think the interaction of human beings in a closed society is absolutely fascinating: the power struggles, the attempt to establish and retain one's own identity, the way in which people group defensive or offensive alliances, particularly against strangers. And I think, too, that there's a certain dramatic element in the detective coming into this society, penetrating it, seeing it with fresh eyes—and the whole society reacting to him. Of course, it's also convenient in that if you have a closed society, then you have a closed circle of suspects!
Although Dalgliesh is the penetrator of the closed society, he is not its only observer in the novels; James uses the third person and shifts the point of view from observer to observer within each book; this variety lends complexity and richness, in her view, and also allows her to describe scenes to which the detective is not privy. She gives one particularly good example:
There's far more richness in a novel where one is able to enter into different human beings and particularly to see the same event through their different eyes. A small example of that is in A Mind to Murder, when the body is discovered, and because it's a nervous reaction that he has, the consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Steiner, has to turn away because he finds he's giggling. And it's purely nothing he can control. To the other person there, he seems to be weeping, and to her it's extraordinary that he should be so distressed over the death of someone he didn't in fact like. I think this is useful; it adds psychological tone….
Steiner is a good example of the kind of people about whom James likes to write—able and intelligent. "They may be rather wicked people, but on the whole, I find that intelligent people are more interesting." Sometimes these characters trigger an idea for a scene or a story, but essentially, James believes that she doesn't write directly from life. However, she frequently comes across "scraps of conversation," houses, or places which stimulate her imagination.
I remember seeing the river in a certain light, the Thames at low tide, the birds clustering at the end of a wharf and the water looking like oil … these sorts of scenes, one sees them and observes them, and will probably record them, and if the current book or the next book is going to deal with this sort of place—
the details are ready to hand. She feels that she must "get into the book, in a sense, enter into the world of the book," and to do so, she not only needs to work regularly, every day, but also spends a great deal of time on very, very careful planning and plotting. Not only are the individual characters fairly complete in her mind before she actually begins writing, but so are the individual scenes:
Exactly who will be present', the time of day, the look of the place—and the room, the smell of the room—the whole atmosphere is there before I start.
I have charts and a synopsis and pages where the time sequence is set out in great detail so that I know what each of my characters is doing, certainly on the more important days, possibly over a matter of weeks. And, details of the characters. Of course, the characters soon become so real, one doesn't need to refer to this. But when plotting, it's important: names and physical appearance are important.
This immersion in the world of the book coupled with the careful planning account, very likely, not only for her absorption in it ("I think I'm writing, in a sense, for myself or to express something I need to express"), but also for the success of her method.
I don't write the book starting at the beginning and going right through to the end at all. I write it in scenes. Yes, I think that's the word, in dramatic scenes. I think, "I will now do the episode in the cottage between A and B," and this can then be put on one side and I'll go back to it later. But this method does mean that I can work on a part of the novel which, at that particular moment. I feel I could do best.
While she recognizes the excitement and thrill that come with a passage which goes well the first time and the delight generated by finding that a piece of material which stimulated her imagination fits beautifully into a work, James regards the creative process as primarily a matter of self-discipline.
I think a writer does need a very great deal of discipline. I think any prospective writer who feels that this is a matter of inspiration, primarily, and not a matter of discipline, is due for some very unpleasant surprises. It seems to me that as a craft, even if one puts it no higher, it is a highly disciplined art form …
There can be passages, I think, either because one's in the mood or because one particularly wants to write it (sometimes they're the best passages) which are right the first time. They are spontaneous, and too often one spoils them by altering them. But I think these are very rare passages. And that for most of the work, the rewriting is tremendously important; I don't think I've known of a writer who didn't feel this.
James, herself, usually does about two full revisions, first writing out a very rough draft by hand and then putting it on tape. It's typed from the tape and she does another major revision on that version, occasionally even supplying some final changes in the second typed draft. This careful reworking, along with her detailed planning and tight work schedule, require that a novel take about eighteen months minimum to complete, "usually it takes rather longer."
While this process is going on, the author does not find herself talking about the book in progress: in fact, "on the whole, I don't relish talking at length about my work, really." Readers will be glad to know, however, that there is a new book in progress, now plotted and in the writing stages; it will probably be complete by the end of 1976 if the schedule goes as planned; thus far, it has no set title, though a number of possibilities are being considered.
Though P. D. James doesn't discuss her works as they are being written, she says she might, when the book is finished, talk over a technical difficulty and her method of handling it with a fellow writer. She does belong to the International Crime Writers Association and enjoys the fellowship, though her time for active membership is limited. One of the most enjoyable facets of the group, she thinks, is its freedom from professional jealousy. "It certainly doesn't happen with crime writers, who are very friendly. Perhaps we sublimate our worst emotions in our books!"
Another group of agreeable people is her followers, many of whom write to her. Usually, they tell her about the pleasure the books have afforded them, but sometimes they ask technical questions or request advice. Despite the fact that she must limit her letter-writing time in order to meet her writing schedule, James does try to answer the letters. "It seems only courteous when they've taken the trouble to write …"
Because one of the delights to these readers is the game of trying to guess the culprit in any crime story, I asked James if she considered the guessing-game factor central to her works and if she, for instance, made a list, checking if off to be sure she'd given all the clues.
Sometimes I make a list, but certainly, yes, I do try to be punctilious over the detective part of it. I give all the clues; I hope I give them fairly. It should be possible to reason out the solution. I do consider the readers; it is a detective story, and they have a right to expect that it'll be fair.
But at the same time the solution must be psychologically right. It's just no good if it merely fits neatly because these are the facts and this is the timetable and that's what the clock said and so on—Psychologically, the crime must arise from human nature.
How much the readers really bother, I think, is another point. I know when I read them, I'm obviously, in the back of my mind, thinking, "Aha!"—but I think far more frequently, "Aha! That's a clever clue and I'm meant to be taken in by this but I won't!" rather than that I'm listing them in my mind.
Because she is an English woman and a mystery writer, the comparison between P. D. James and Agatha Christie is, probably, inevitable. Certainly, her American publishers identify her as an heir of the late detective writer. Like many readers in the genre, James finds Christie's puzzle-making "remarkable, a sort of sleight of hand! She brings it off practically every time!" But she also comments.
I think we're fairly different writers. I think it's just a way the publishers have of saying that they hope I get as well known. I have an admiration for her, but I'm a very different writer.
When asked why so many women writers like herself and Christie have been successful in the mystery-detection field, James replied:
I think because we're careful about detail, and this is important. I think women like writing about human beings and their reaction to each other, and detective novels are about human beings and their reaction to extreme stress. I think that we often write about a fairly domestic situation; the contrast between this and the horror of the actual murder is very effective. This is true particularly of English detective fiction, less true, perhaps, with American, but we are far more intrigued by the body in the library, as it were, or the body in the cottage than we are by half a dozen slain bodies down the mean streets. It is the domestic murder which interests us, and women are good at that.
Among female readers and critics. James is often considered a feminist. I asked her how she felt about that, and her response was immediate and vigorous!
Yes, I am a feminist in the sense that I like and admire women very much. I'm not in sympathy with the more extreme factions of Women's Lib because I suppose what I believe is that women are as intelligent as men and in many ways as able, but women have got other qualities as well.
These are qualities of sympathy and of understanding (an instinctive wish to look after people who are weaker than themselves) and of less aggression. This is what the world wants! It would be a great pity if we start emulating men and emulating the qualities of men which are their least attractive qualities.
But I'm a tremendous feminist and I think that women should have absolutely equal opportunity. I think that all over the world their abilities are very wasted. I certainly feel very strongly about unfairness—sexual unfairness, legal unfairness. I hate to see discrimination of any kind. It makes me very cross. But I like men. I have men friends. I dislike the kind of, I suppose, antiman Women's Lib.
Yes, I am very much a feminist, very much. Certainly when I was a girl, it seemed to me deplorable how girls were automatically expected to take inferior roles. Even in a family where there were very clever girls and stupid boys, the education would be for the boys and not for the girls. And I think, thank God, we've moved very far from that; I think we have a far more equal role. But we mustn't, I think, be ruthless about it.
Like her writing, this comment reflects her concern for the individual and for the kind of freedom for the individual which allows him or her to be himself, to make the contribution he or she is best able to make. This same concern is also apparent in her response to the worn but important question, "What advice would you give to the beginning writer?"
I would say to keep on … to learn all you can from other writers, from good writers, to be original, to be yourself, not to copy other people … to try and look at the world always with fresh eyes and to put things down honestly: what you think and what you feel.
It seems somewhat contradictory to say, "Study the classics, study the people who are good writers," and at the same time, "Be yourself," but it isn't really contradictory. There's a tremendous lot to be learned from people who've known how to do it and do it well; but at the same time, one has to bring an individual voice to it.
Late in the interview, I turned to yet another old but useful question and asked P. D. James how she would like to be remembered.
As a human being, I should like to be remembered as a one who enhanced the pleasure in life for other people. I don't mean I am that sort of human being, but that people, when they looked back at me, would want to smile or to laugh. And that my children would want to look back at me and feel that they had been the happier because I'd been their mother.
I think as a writer. I would like to be remembered as an honest and original craftsman, who was able to give pleasure, and entertainment, and release from the anxieties of our violent world to a large number of people—and to have troubled to try and do it well.
She does trouble to do it well, and the time and effort she invests are well spent, indeed. The books are sound, insightful, and bring delight to their readers, largely because their author "takes the trouble" to put down honestly what she has observed with fresh and compassionate—but never sentimental!—eyes.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3846
SOURCE: "Adam Dalgliesh: Byronic Hero," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1982, pp. 40-46.
[In the following essay, Hubly analyzes the character of Adam Dalgliesh as a Byronic hero.]
Various readers of P. D. James' novels have attempted to understand the character of her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, by discussing him in terms of classic detective fiction. Francis Wyndham, for example, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, has placed Adam in the tradition of "the gentleman detective" as developed by Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. As such he is "a suitably romantic sleuth," attracted to women, able to carry on "stylish courtships" of them, fond of music and good literature (Jane Austen is his favorite writer), sensitive and yet ruthless enough to be able to perform his sometimes distasteful duties. Norma Siebenheller, in her book on James, discusses Adam in terms of this same tradition. Like the earlier English mystery writers—Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and others—James writes "literature tightly constructed and civilized" novels in which inventive characterizations, psychological insights and detailed descriptions replace violence, physical conflict and rough-and-tumble action. And yet, Siebenheller argues, James also departs from that tradition in significant ways. Rather than write books in which the puzzle is all important, as did Agatha Christie and to a lesser extent Sayers, Marsh and Allingham, in which an element of make-believe pervades throughout. James has chosen to portray a more realistic world, one peopled with characters whose actions are carefully motivated and whose reactions are true to their complex personalities.
It is in this tradition—that of realistic popular fiction, rather than that of classic detective fiction—that Siebenheller places both James and her detective Adam Dalgliesh. "A far cry from the almost comical characters who served Christie and Sayers as sleuths," Adam is a real detective, a professional policeman who solves crimes using standard police procedures rather than sudden and capricious insights or revelations. In addition, Adam is a far more complex character than either Christie's or Sayers' protagonists, a man who, because of early emotional traumas, has built a protective wall around himself which no one can penetrate, a man whose most marked characteristic is his detachment, his fierce desire for privacy.
While both Wyndham's and Siebenheller's observations about Adam are useful, Wyndham placing him in the tradition of classic detective fiction, Siebenheller seeing him as a departure from that tradition, they do not fully account for either the man Adam Dalgliesh or the fascination he has had for readers. In order to do that we must go to an even earlier literary tradition than that of "the gentleman detective"—to the tradition of the Byronic hero.
The Byronic hero, as developed by Byron in such poems and dramatic works as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lara and Manfred, is, among other things, a rebel against society, a man who, for a number of reasons, finds it impossible to adjust to or accept society. Peter Thorslev, in discussing the figure in his book The Byronic Hero, has noted that these heroes are solitaries, men who either because of the acuteness of their minds and sensibilities or because of some conscious moral choice have placed themselves outside the rules that govern others, rebelling at first against society only, then against the natural universe, and finally against God himself. This is, of course, a description that does not apply to Adam Dalgliesh, who is, above all else, a policeman, a man committed to defending and upholding the laws of society. In this respect he differs greatly from the Byronic hero, from Manfred, for example, who, by self-admission, belongs to "the brotherhood of Cain," a man who has sought after forbidden things, a man who, by loving his sister Astarte incestuously, has broken the social code.
Adam's insistence upon upholding society's laws springs, in part, from personal fears. Although somewhat cavalier in his answers when asked why he became a policeman—"I like the job"; "it's one I can do reasonably well; it allows me to indulge a curiosity about people and, for most of the time anyway, I'm not bored with it."—Adam's real reason for becoming a policeman is far more imperative. Mary Taylor, the matron of the nurses' training school in Shroud for a Nightingale, comes closer to the reason Adam became a detective when she, after having observed Adam for a number of days and intuiting much about him, notes: "What would a man like you be without his job, this particular job? Vulnerable like the rest of us?"
In citing Adam's vulnerability Mary Taylor has hit upon one of his most distinguishing characteristics and certainly one of the reasons he became a detective. For at the core of Adam's being is a fear of chaos. It is a fear that goes back to Adam's childhood, when as a fourteen year old boy he experienced what was to him "a horror eclipsing all subsequent horrors"—the murder, by her brother, of a young girl Adam was just beginning to imagine himself in love with. It is a fear that culminates eight years later in another even more traumatic death—that of Adam's wife soon after childbirth, a death which cuts across Adam's life, forming his vision of the world.
Death, then, that which can suddenly and inexplicably destroy one's world, death becomes the enemy. Against such a reality Adam develops a number of defenses, chief among which is his job. If Adam's father, an Anglican minister, tried to fight death on a theological level, by denying its power, Adam, the inheritor of a secular world, fights it on another. Constantly encountering death in the murder cases he investigates, he tries to bring order out of chaos: if he cannot stop death he can at least catch and punish those who inflict it on others. His, then, is an endeavor which offers reassurance, which seems to restore order to an otherwise disorderly world.
Adam, then, is a fierce defender of the social code, feeling that rules, in a world of flux and chaos, are man's only hope. He is, then, in this respect, the antithesis of the Byronic hero, who glorifies in disorder, who views the rules as something inapplicable to him and thus as something that can be broken. And yet Adam does have other qualities that place him squarely in the Byronic tradition, qualities which we would now like to explore.
Based on the persona of Byron, who upon the death of his great-uncle inherited the title of Lord, the Byronic hero is an aristocrat, either by birth or sensibility, the capacity for feeling, in this tradition, an indication of the depth of one's soul. Adam Dalgliesh, although not an aristocrat by birth, is one in sensibility, having developed early a great capacity both to feel and to suffer. Like Byron, Adam is a poet, and the title of one of his books of poems, Invisible Scars, indicates both the nature and the degree of his suffering: he has been wounded and his wounds have left lasting scars; internal, these scars cannot be seen by others, but only felt by their bearer. His life early defined by loss—the murder, when he was fourteen, of a young girl he was just beginning to love—the death of his wife and infant son when he was in his mid-twenties—Adam's growth has been marked by pain, a pain so intense that it has defined his life.
Central to the Byronic hero is an overwhelming grief for a lost love whose death the hero somehow feels responsible for. Manfred, Byron's darkest hero, seeks forgetfulness from a past he cannot escape, from the memory of an incestuous relationship with his sister Astarte, who in apparent remorse at such forbidden love, killed herself. Manfred, left alone to suffer for them both, blames himself for her death: "My embrace was fatal"; "I loved her, and destroy'd her." Wandering over the earth after Astarte's death, continually searching for love. Manfred has never been able to find her likeness or equal, and thus imprisoned in the past, seeks release through the only means left: his own death.
Unlike Manfred, Dalgliesh's love was not incestuous, and yet he was implicated in his wife's death, for she died a few hours after childbirth. Adam's embrace, then, like Manfred's, was fatal: in impregnating his wife he also insured her death. Like Manfred, Adam has never been able to forget his lost love, and once a year, on the anniversary of his wife's death, goes to a Catholic church, where in "this most private action of his detached and secretive life," he lights a candle to her memory. Believing that all emotional involvements are painful, he has carefully insulated himself from others, engaging only in casual love affairs, committing himself to no one. Only in his poetry does Adam reveal himself, protected by the very private act of writing.
There are, of course, several women who do break through, temporarily at least, Adam's defenses. Deborah Riscoe is the most important of these. Meeting her in one of his early cases, she the daughter of the woman Adam exposes as the murderer in Cover Her Face, Adam finds himself, when they meet again several years later, "to be on the brink of love." By the time of his third case, that reported in Unnatural Causes, Adam's feelings for Deborah have progressed to the point that he is thinking of marrying her. Taking a holiday in order to decide the issue, Adam visits his aunt Jane; becoming involved, however, in a case, Adam does not, until the end of his holiday, turn his thoughts to Deborah. By then it is too late, for Deborah, sensing Adam's indecision, has taken matters into her own hands and broken off their relationship. It is a decision Adam seems to agree with, for he does not try to see her again, and Deborah Riscoe passes from his life.
From time to time readers of James' novels, James herself, have speculated on whether or not Adam will ever marry again. We would suggest that he will not, for Adam, a prisoner of his past, can love only himself. Early traumatized by death, believing that all emotional attachments lead to loss, Adam cannot escape himself; all his loves are but versions of himself. Like the Byronic hero who seeks himself in others like himself, Manfred for example, in his sister Astarte, whose eyes, hair, features, even the tone of her voice are like his, Adam's loves are narcissistic, reflections of himself. For although Adam goes through the motions of loving Deborah Riscoe, it is two other women, his aunt Jane and Mary Taylor, we would argue, who really claim his attentions, and both are reflections of himself.
Aunt Jane is, of course, closely related to Adam through family ties: her brother was Adam's father. They also share other histories: both lost a loved one early in life, Aunt Jane her fiance, killed in the First World War; Adam, his wife dying soon after childbirth. Both have sought solace by immersing themselves in solitary pursuits. Aunt Jane in bird-watching, Adam in writing poetry. Temperamentally they are also alike: the adjectives used to describe Aunt Jane, "sensitive, uncommunicative and rather difficult," could apply to Adam as well. Like Adam Aunt Jane is a solitary and detached figure, one who does not express her feelings to others. Her most distinguishing feature, her rock-like self-sufficiency, is the quality that Adam most admires in her, and it is the quality that he has spent his life developing in himself. Adam's identification with his aunt is so strong that, near the end of the book in which she appears, Unnatural Causes, when his aunt withdraws from her living room in apparent indifference after hearing the murderer's confession. Adam is suddenly frightened at her lack of involvement: "Never before had his aunt's uninvolvement struck him so forcibly; never before had it seemed so frightening." His fear, of course, is not for his aunt alone, but for himself as well. For just the night before Adam had withdrawn from the same room and the same people in order to be alone, to try and decide whether or not to marry Deborah Riscoe. It was a decision he could not make, and his inability to involve himself with Deborah has left him as alone as his aunt. Thus his fear for his aunt the next day; thus his fear for himself.
Aunt Jane serves as a foil to Deborah Riscoe throughout the book, for certainly Aunt Jane's presence makes it difficult for Adam to envision loving any other woman. In a scene early in the book, while sitting before the living room fire with his aunt, who is silently knitting, Adam finds himself openly comparing the two women—his aunt with her strong character, her self-sufficient ways, her solitary and yet appealing life at Pentlands, her home in the country—to Deborah, whose easy sophistication, whose preference for the city—its restaurants, theaters and pubs—seem to exclude her from Pentlands, and thus from Adam's heart.
For it is Aunt Jane whose presence dominates the book in which she appears. Adam, ostensibly on a holiday in order to decide whether or not to marry Deborah Riscoe, does not think much about Deborah but is constantly impressed with his aunt, whom he is visiting. During the course of the book it becomes obvious that she is the woman Adam most admires; she is the woman he most looks forward to seeing. His visits to her, twice a year, restore him in ways no other activity can, their walks together on the beach, he carrying her sketching paraphernalia, she pointing out various birds to him, their closeness, felt but not spoken, enabling him to return to London at the end of his holiday "with a sense of relief." And she, undemanding, asking nothing of him, not even affection, understood because so like himself, is finally "the only woman in the world with whom he was completely at peace." It is a high compliment, indeed, from a man who values, above all else, peace and tranquillity; no other woman among Adam's acquaintances offers him such satisfaction.
If Aunt Jane's attraction is, in part, because she is so like Adam, Mary Taylor, the Matron of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, appeals to Adam for the same reason. Again the attraction is narcissistic, the similarities between the two striking: both are imposing figures, tall, slender and impressive on the first meeting. Each has distinguished himself in his career, Mary as an administrator of a nurses' training school, Adam as a detective at Scotland Yard. Each is a prisoner of his past, each having suffered early a traumatic experience involving death: Mary, at the age of eighteen accused, wrongly, of having taken part in the killings of thirty-one Jewish workers in a Nazi slave camp; Adam at the age of twenty-six having lost his wife and infant son in childbed. Each is a solitary figure, happiest when alone; each views the love or concern of another as a burden best discarded. Each sees himself as superior to the average, a superiority whose rewards, an increased sense of awareness, is also its greatest liability, resulting also in an increased sense of vulnerability. And finally each, feeling that chaos lies just below the surface of reality, has sought refuge in rules and regulations, building his life around them as if they might prevent disaster.
Adam's meeting, then, with Mary Taylor involves a shock of recognition, for in getting to know Mary, Adam begins to see himself. His attraction to her is immediate and clear: upon seeing her for the first time he is impressed by her "casual elegance and a confidence that was almost palpable." Adam's involvement with Mary deepens at their first meeting alone in her flat: appraising her features, noting her face with its distinctive bone structure, Adam suddenly thinks that "she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met." Engaging her in conversation, he is impressed by her intelligence, her facility with words, and thinks, after one of her clever repartees, that their conversation was becoming "a verbal pavane," one which, if he were not careful, he would "begin to enjoy."
During the course of the case he becomes increasingly interested in Mary Taylor. As if jealous of anyone else in Mary's life, he seems obsessed with her friendship with Ethel Brumfett, wondering what Mary Taylor could see in such an "essentially stupid and dull woman," wondering finally, with horror, if they might be lovers. And in a scene near the end of the book, after Adam has been hit on the head with a golf club and must have the wound sutured, his feelings for Mary finally emerge. For the things Adam notes about her here are the things a lover, about to make love, would notice: her cool and steady hands upon his head, her hands as they undress him, taking off his tie, removing his jacket, unbuttoning his shirt, the sheen of her dressing-gown and the long plait of hair falling over her left shoulder, the feel of her body as she draws his head against her breast, steadying him as his wound is sutured by Dr. Courtney-Briggs. Characteristically, Adam fights this attraction; refusing to admit his need for her, her strength, her cool hands, her supporting body, he refuses to take anesthesia as his wound is stitched. And as if to prove his independence from her, he, as she helps him stand after the stitching is finished, pushes her away.
Theirs is, however, a bond that Adam cannot so easily dismiss, as he himself later recognizes. For he finally knows Mary Taylor because he knows himself, can read her mind because he knows his own. "How can you possibly know how I felt about Ethel Brumfett and her intolerable devotion to me?" Mary Taylor asks Adam. "Because I know myself," he answers her, silently to himself. Theirs is a bond Mary Taylor later openly acknowledges for both of them, when noting how they both have tried to hide their fears and doubts about life behind a belief in rules and regulations, she observes: "You and I are not so different after all. Adam Dalgliesh."
Indeed they are not, and later when Mary Taylor kills Ethel Brumfett, her action threatens Adam in a most personal way. Not only does it undermine his belief in his ability to judge people—how could he have been so attracted to a woman capable of murder—but it also threatens his whole concept of himself. For if he is like Mary Taylor, then he too could be capable of murder. Mary Taylor is the dark side of Adam, and his anger at her betrayal of them both, at his own fears that he, too, could murder, causes him to hunt her down with a vengeance, pursuing "the case as if it were a personal vendetta, hating himself and her."
Adam's involvement with Mary Taylor, then, serves to reveal several of his Byronic characteristics: his narcissism, his independent and solitary nature, his own murderous impulses. It reveals yet another of these characteristics: his basic agnosticism. For like Mary Taylor, Adam, while on the surface reassuring and comforting to those who serve under him, holds a private credo that is stark, almost nihilistic. Although Mary, early in the book Shroud for a Nightingale expresses this credo for herself, it could belong to Adam as well:
She could imagine the blank incomprehension, the resentment with which they would greet her private credo.
"I haven't anything to offer. There isn't any help. We are all alone, all of us from the moment of birth until we die. Our past is our present and our future. We have to live with ourselves until there isn't any more time left. If you want salvation look to yourself. There's nowhere else to look."
For Adam, like his Byronic predecessors, has inherited a world in which God is dead, in which religion has lost its power, in which death triumphs over all. Man stands utterly alone, armed only with his intelligence. Heaven and hell have been secularized, internalized, the mind itself the sole creator of good and evil. Byron's hero, Manfred, addressing the Spirits who come to take him away at the end of the poem, expresses best this new faith in the powers of the human mind, which alone is immortal and which makes of all things "its own place and time": "The Mind which is immortal makes itself / Requital for its good or evil thoughts,—/ Is its own origin of ill and end—/ And its own place and time." In such a world man becomes his own point of reference; in such a world there is little appeal to things other than the self. In The Black Tower we learn that Adam, as a boy, had tried to visualize what "the spiritual life" was like, and had often asked his father's curate. Father Baddeley, to explain it to him:
Was it lived at the same time as the ordinary regulated life of getting up, meal times, school, holidays; or was it an existence on some other plane to which he and the uninitiated had no access but into which Father Baddeley could retreat at will?
Although Father Baddeley had tried to explain it to Adam, Adam had not understood. And it is a question that Adam, as a man, still does not know the answer to.
For the church, in James' novels, is an ineffectual force, and serves only as a setting for ominous events. James' is a world in which science has replaced religion, a world in which the best of men, such as Adam, turn to science rather than to religion to solve the riddles of mankind. There is no place for religion, always an intangible; the problems are too insistent, too real, too ever-present. It is a world in which men go to church regularly and yet end up killing their neighbors, a world in which chapels are places where lovers meet to carry on illicit affairs, couples making love on the altars where men once worshipped, a world in which religious pilgrimages to Lourdes are nothing more than covers for smuggling drugs into England, a world in which murderers wear monks' habits while killing their victims.
Amidst all this chaos Adam moves, armed only with his job, his poetry, his human intelligence. There seems to be no other help. Men are strangers to one another and to God, and the passage in the Book of Common Prayer that Adam comes across near the end of one of his cases, Death of an Expert Witness, could apply to Adam as well as to all men:
For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4521
SOURCE: "A Mind to Write," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 340-48.
[In the following interview, James discusses how her novels differ from those of the traditional detective genre, and the inspiration behind her characters and plots.]
"The extraordinary thing" is a phrase used often by British detective novelist P. D. James. There are many extraordinary things to be said about this vibrant woman whose ageless, wrinkle-free face and warm personality belie the fact that she has in her life faced great personal tragedy and in her writing has explored convincingly the psychological motivations for murder.
In her publicity photographs, James appears to be serious, pensive, perhaps even a touch reserved or severe. Many interviews in the past focus on the difficulty she faced when her husband, a doctor, returned from World War II to remain seriously mentally ill throughout the remainder of his life. Before meeting her, it is easy to picture a determined, perhaps rather silent woman, working away for years as a high-level British civil servant, efficiently balancing a demanding career in criminal law with bringing up two daughters, while earnestly tapping away on her typewriter in the early mornings, turning out detective novels hailed without exception by critics as masterpieces in the genre. But a face-to-face meeting with this woman obliterates this impression almost entirely, and certainly immediately.
I have met James several times over a period of five years, both in her London home and in various parts of the United States. Whether she was serving cucumber sandwiches and tea in London or cheering for Yale at a Harvard—Yale football game, James is a woman of great warmth and casual grace. She was born in Oxford, England, in 1920 and educated at Cambridge Girls High School. Her principal career was as a civil servant in administration at London's Home Office, work that was necessary to support her family. She has two daughters. In recent years, she has served as a magistrate in London and devotes the rest of her work time to writing and occasionally teaching. She resides in London in a Regency house that is bright and welcoming and well-ordered, much like her own personality.
In this interview, James tells us a bit about the child who always knew she would become a writer. She also tells us about her detective novels featuring Adam Dalgleish and Cordelia Gray, as well as her work that departs from the detective story format: her thriller, her play, and her nonfiction study of a series of nineteenth-century crimes, The Maul and The Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811. Written in collaboration with T. A. Critchley, the British police historian, this latest volume is published by The Mysterious Press and Warner Books in its first American edition. It was first published in England in 1971.
[Herbert:] You have said that you knew from a very early age that you wanted to be a writer.
[James:] Yes, I think from an early age I was aware that I had what I suppose in common parlance is "a gift." I knew I had been granted a talent. I don't think I ever doubted that I could write. I mean, obviously, one does learn. One learns techniques. One develops—or hopes to develop. But I think I was aware that this was something I could do and the problem was going to be to make myself do it!
Do you have an image of yourself that would tell us what you were like as a girl?
Well, I think I had a very strong fantasy world from a very early age. I had numerous totally imaginary people who were very real to me to whom I talked and with whom I communicated. This was almost from early childhood. I told stories at a very early age; I used to tell them at night. We had one large nursery when we were very young, and I used to tell the stories at night to my sister and brother.
Were they mystery stories?
No, They were adventure stories.
Do you recall what you were like in terms of personality?
I seem to have been a curious mixture because I think I was popular and gregarious at school and yet at the same time very private.
That's an unusual balance to strike.
I think it is. My mother was a very warm woman, a very emotional sort of person, entirely different from my father, and I can see in myself the traits that I've taken from each. My father was very intelligent but I think rather cold emotionally. But he had a sense of humor and a tremendous independence, and as I got older I valued more and more these qualities in him. I had a very close relationship with him.
Did you always see yourself as writing in the detective area?
No. But, by the time I came to settle down to write the first book, there was no particular internal discussion about what sort of book it would be. I knew I was going to attempt a detective story for my first novel.
Did this arise out of a love of detective fiction?
Well, I certainly read it for pleasure. And Dorothy L. Sayers was certainly a very potent influence upon my youth. I love construction of course in novels, and I wanted to write a well-constructed novel. And I also thought that a detective novel would have the best chance of being accepted for publication!
Of course, I later discovered that within the detective form I could write a novel that has a moral ambiguity and psychological subtlety like a serious novel. Writing within the constraints isn't in fact inhibiting; it's positively liberating! This is why I carry on.
What do you think is the value of detective fiction for today's reader?
I wouldn't in a very difficult world underestimate the element of relaxation and escape. This is not in any way to be disparaged. I think detective novels do provide vicarious excitement, and they do help to purge irrational guilt and fears, I think. They do distance the terrors of death in rather a paradoxical way; they provide the reassurance that there can be a solution and that solution can be arrived at by human ingenuity and human intelligence and human courage.
Detective fiction usually centers around death. Do you see yourself as a person who has always been sensitive to the fragility of life?
Yes. I think this is so. I think I was born with this sense of the extraordinary fragility of life and that every moment is lived really not under the shadow of death but in the knowledge that this is how it is going to end. So that death is in a sense an ever-present thought. It sounds a little morbid, but I don't see it at all as morbid because I think I'm really rather a happy person who was always aware of this. I think for some people detective fiction does help to exorcise this fear. It distances death, really. It almost takes its horror, part of it anyway, and throws it out the window. The reader knows that order will be restored out of disorder.
The world of the murder story is a paradoxically safe world. This was particularly true of the old cozies. They still have their charm. Theirs was an ordered world with everyone moving according to hierarchy, with people knowing where they stand in the scheme of things and no one powerless, no one anonymous, everyone known, recognized, and valued.
Although your novels are far from cozy, they do show how very important individuals are to one another and the strong impact that people have on one another's lives.
Yes. The characters and their motivation are the most important part of the book to me. But I do think that it's important that the plot should stand out, that the clues should be fair. The clues should be presented with cunning but also with essential fairness.
I'm interested in the question of guilt in the detective novel. Obviously, the cozy sought to establish the fact of guilt, the answer to the question "Whodunit?" But the cozy didn't pursue and develop the effects of guilt on the criminal or on anyone connected with the criminal. In much detective fiction today, the psychology of guilt is better explored. In writing your novels, what kind of thought do you give to the question of guilt?
I think I give it quite a lot of thought. My new novel is about guilt. I think guilt is a fascinating subject altogether, because to be human is to be guilty, whether the guilt is rational or not. I think perhaps the difference between the cozy detective story and the modern detective story—which may also be called the crime novel—is that the latter does turn its attention to this question of guilt. And of course in the crime novel you may not have much detection, you may know who the guilty person is, and your novel really is about the effect of that deed on the person and on his society. This also bears on the thinking of W. H. Auden, who saw the detective story as a kind of morality play.
Yes, the dialectic of guilt.
And of course in the cozies we had the satisfaction, I suppose, of feeling that whatever else we may be guilty about, we're not guilty of having slipped the dagger under Sir Gaspar's ribs in the library! I am sure that the attitude of the writer to guilt distinguishes the true crime novel from mere entertainment.
I think one could also say that the crime novel at its best is concerned with the limits of free will, because in this kind of novel you really feel in the end, "Well, how much choice do these people have?" This is the fascinating thing, that you are trying to work to an extent within the old-fashioned conventions but at the same time you are trying to write a book which has some claims to be regarded as a novel because it is psychologically true.
In the detective novel that Auden was writing about, an idyllic society was shattered by an appalling crime—usually murder—but eventually complete order is restored. This doesn't seem to be possible—or indeed desirable—in a novel like Death of An Expert Witness.
Oh, yes. The days of getting everybody together in the library at the end are no more. You must have the solution to the mystery, but I think in the modern detective story, although we discover who did it and why and how and when and so forth, the effects of the crime are a great deal more disruptive than they were in the older mystery. It is not just a nice return to Eden. The modern detective story shows exactly how disruptive and contaminating murder can be and how no life in that society surrounding it is untouched by it.
What do you see as the chief difference between American and British detective fiction?
I think we're much more interested in the emotions that give rise to murder. It's malice domestic largely with us. I agree with Auden that the single body on the drawing-room floor is more horrifying and powerful than hundreds of bodies riddled with bullets down the mean streets. Strong emotion rather than strong action. That's basically the difference.
And yet you have never shied away from showing a graphic scene of death in fiction or in nonfiction.
Yes. Absolutely. But it is generally an individual death.
Your latest book, The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811, is a work of nonfiction and a collaboration. It was published in 1971 after you had established yourself as a fiction writer. How did you and T. A. Critchley decide to write this story together?
We wrote it about sixteen years ago. I was then working in the Home Office, which as you know is the British equivalent of your Department of Justice, basically. Tom Critchley was my boss. We were both working in the police department.
I had been reading, I think in the London Library, the Newgate Calendar, which of course is a description of notorious and horrible crimes, and there was a chapter on the Ratcliffe Highway crimes, with a picture of poor John Williams's body being paraded around Wapping after he had presumably committed suicide. I read the account, and it seemed to me that there was a great deal of doubt about this whole crime. And so I mentioned this to Tom Critchley, and he said, "Did you realize that this was the crime which De Quincey wrote about in his famous essay 'Murder Considered as a Fine Art'?" "No, I didn't," I said. So I read that essay and said to him, "Well, it was an extraordinary account that De Quincey's written, but it seems to me that he's not got the facts right. There's a lot more behind this than one knows." So Critchley said, "Well, let's send for the Home Office files. Let's see what we can find out."
Then it became absolutely fascinating, and we decided that we would write up the case and make a book of it. It really was a very interesting book to write. I think as a bit of social history it is interesting, and it certainly shows what a murder investigation was like in London in 1811, and also what policing was like.
The case was notable in part because of the population's reaction to it. It involved brutal murders that were pinned on a man who committed suicide before he could be brought to justice.
Of course, what was so extraordinary is that the murders had such an effect on public opinion that when Williams was found dead of course they paraded his body around the streets. What an incredible thing that was to do as late as 1811. I don't know another case in which this happened. It's a certain indication of how appalled the populace were.
I think we have a feeling that the East End of London was such a violent place in 1811 and murders were happening all the time. But obviously they were not. They were not! There was a great deal, no doubt, of mob violence, a great deal of thieving and a great deal of criminal behavior of one kind or another. But atrocious murder of this kind was, really, rare. And one can see this in the effect the crime had on the populace.
The book indicates that the spectacle of the crowd parading the body of the alleged murderer around the streets was even discussed in Parliament.
Yes, even Sheridan, the playwright, made a marvelous speech.
I was interested to learn that it was felt that capital punishment was a deterrent to serious crime, and it was believed that the more people who could view a hanging the better. The example was supposed to be made public both to deter people from committing crimes and to serve as a public retribution. Therefore, if a criminal succeeded in committing suicide he was cheating the public of its revenge.
Oh, Yes. And of course suicide was regarded as a very great crime in itself. It was regarded as self-murder, and there were very strong theological objections to it in those days. So there were the two things: the man was a self-murderer, which made him wicked anyway, and he had cheated justice. He should have been publicly hanged to mark people's abhorrence.
This notion is very interesting in the light of just why the murder story—true or fictional—is so fascinating. Murder is of course the essential crime against society in the sense that the victim can no longer get retribution; so therefore society must do so for him.
Yes, absolutely. It's a crime for which you can never, ever make retribution to your victim. And with this particular crime people felt it was particularly abhorrent and dreadful because of the very nature of the victims. Here was poor Timothy Marr, a decent, hard-working little man with his wife and child, brutally done to death, not even safe in their own house. And over and over again there was the sense that there must be something absolutely rotten at the heart of the nation where such things could happen.
In studying this case, you learned about the poor state of forensic knowledge, the disorganized force of night watchmen who were the only law-enforcement people in the neighborhoods, the inefficient approach to investigation of a crime. What was it like to be a historical sleuth?
I found it was very interesting. It was surprising how much information we were able to get.
Did your own work in the police department give you any particular knowledge that helped you to investigate this historical crime that an average researcher might not have?
I don't think so, really. In the police department we weren't concerned with the investigation of crime. That's all done by the police themselves. We were really concerned with the administration of the police force. I think the fact that I'm a detective writer was very helpful, because I looked at the case from the point of view of the human side of the story. I looked at the personalities. I looked at the clues. I think I contributed mostly that and a lot of the more descriptive writing. Tom Critchley was probably the prime collector of information, the prime researcher.
I wondered if as a collaborator Mr. Critchley was a kindred spirit or if he had complementary differences.
I think complementary differences. He's much more a researcher and an academic writer. He writes very good prose indeed, and his book is the definitive history of the police in England and Wales. As a historian of the police he was very much at home with some of the problems of policing at that time.
Did you learn a lot about parts of London which you had previously rarely visited?
Yes. Yes. This part of London has changed almost more than any other part. The area was all dependent on what I think we called "that dark bloodstream of a river."
How did writing nonfiction seem similar to writing your novels?
It is a different kind of writing, but there are some things that are similar. I think it's terribly important in the detective story to create an atmosphere, tension, and mood. And of course, setting influences plot, and it even influences character. So the description of setting is vital in a novel, but it's also vital in a work like this.
I am interested to know why you decided to have the book reissued now and how it came about that The Mysterious Press is publishing it in conjunction with Warner?
I had felt up till now that it really was such an English story that it might not have much appeal to American readers. But Warner's asked for it, and as they are my paperback publishers I thought why not? It's been very well produced. And it's wonderful for my fellow writer to have a chance of publication in the States.
I understand that your next novel will be published by Knopf in the autumn. This represents a change of publishers.
Yes. Scribner's continues to have my backlist. The new novel is set in London and features Adam Dalgleish. It's called A Taste of Death. They're very, very enthusiastic at Knopf. I just feel hopeful that the book will repay their confidence in it!
How do you decide which detective, Cordelia or Adam, will appear in each book?
It depends on what sort of plot comes to mind—whether it's suitable for her or whether it's suitable for a professional detective.
Whether or not it's a suitable job for a woman!
One might think that if you had a plot idea, any detective writer could use it and apply his detective to it; but actually there are more subtleties to it than that, are there not?
Yes. I suppose that there's something in what you say in that if you get a good idea for perhaps an original form of murder you could say, "Well that's the central idea of the book, this original way of disposing of someone, and the detective is of secondary importance." But when you have a detective who's an amateur and one who's professional there are certain crimes that an amateur is less likely to be called into.
And with Cordelia's work it's nearly always a crime that the police haven't recognized as such, or a situation in which the police wouldn't normally be involved. In the first [book featuring Cordelia] the police thought it was a suicide and she was called in by the boy's father to find out why. And then in the second one, Cordelia was guarding this actress on the island. So Cordelia got involved in crimes in which it was logical for an amateur to be called in.
It did not matter in the old cozy days. Of course, with Peter Wimsey, he worked closely with the police. In fact, he used them just as his helots to do all the dull work! (She smiles.) But of course nowadays the readers are more sophisticated; they know that isn't so.
I think that in America the private eye has a bigger part to play. There are more of them and they're licensed and people probably use them more, for fairly serious crimes, but it doesn't happen here. I can't see private eyes getting much involved in murder here. So that's a constraint on it. There's immense scope for private eyes, but if you do have an obviously murdered body then the police are going to do the professional police work.
Have you ever considered using another sleuth besides Cordelia or Adam?
Innocent Blood was a departure from the detective novels featuring Adam and Cordelia. How was the inspiration for it different for you?
With most of the Dalgleish and Cordelia books I think the original inspiration that would spark off the novel has been a place and then has come the characters and the detective and the plot. And although place was tremendously important in Innocent Blood because it's set in London and London is in a sense integral to the story, it wasn't a for question of "I want to set a book in London," as it was for instance with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman that "I wanted to set a book in Cambridge." Instead, the inspiration for Innocent Blood derived from a combination of a piece of legislation and a real-life murder case. The Legislation for Children Act in 1975 gave eighteen-year-old adopted children in England and Wales the right to set out on the journey of exploring who their real parents were by having access to their birth certificates. And the murder was a case called The Raven case. It was a long time ago, about 25 years ago. There was a young man who had been to visit his newborn child in hospital and had murdered his parents-in-law on the way home. And at the time, all these years ago, when he was hanged, I thought, "What about the new-born baby? How on earth and at what age do you tell a child that the reason why he has not got any grandparents and hasn't got a father is that the father was executed for their murder? Do you change your name? Or do you even go so far as to have him adopted?" So when the Children Act was passed, those two ideas came together. And I thought, "Suppose somebody began this journey of exploration who had fantasized a very satisfactory background and then discovered something as horrific as that?" So that was an entirely different inspiration from visiting a place and feeling, "I want to set a book here."
In what ways was this book similar to your other work?
I think it shows the influence of the detective story in that it is a book which does in fact have clues—clues to personality, clues to events that have happened.
Another departure from detective fiction is your play.
Yes. It is called A Private Treason. It's very difficult to describe what's in a play because there are so many complex interactions. But basically it is about a 36-year-old very intelligent woman who's got a senior job in the civil service and falls in love with a very much younger man. It's concerned with the conflict between somebody who has always lived by the mind and somebody who lives totally by the emotions.
I think it was a somewhat over-literary play. It was probably an unfashionable play (She Smiles) in that everyone spoke literate English. It was a well-crafted play. And I think it was a novelist's play.
But the theatre was filled every night.
Oh, yes. It ran for five weeks in Watford in April 1985. This is a place just north of London where plays are tried out. It had Susanna York in the lead role.
Is the play a mystery story?
No, but there is a crime within it, although it is not a mystery story as such.
Will the play be performed in the foreseeable future on the London stage or elsewhere?
There are no plans to produce it. I would wish to polish it more, first, but I'm not certain I will take the time to do so.
To bring us back to you as a person and a writer, I would like to ask: having lived a life that, as it turned out, was at times a difficult one, would you have wished to have had an easy life?
Well, it's dishonest to say "no" because I think we all live our lives trying to minimize our pain and maximize our happiness. But I think as a writer it's better to face a degree of trauma. Someone said if you want to be a writer you should have as much trauma in your early years as you can bear without breaking. I think something in me believes that, yes.
Do you feel that the goodness in people ultimately prevails over the inevitable rougher sides of human nature?
I hope it can. I like to think it can. I suppose we all need to believe that love is stronger than death, that the human spirit is indestructible, can surmount almost anything that fate can throw against it. But part of me believes that personal tragedy and in particular physical pain can break anybody. There is, I suppose, in my own personality a dichotomy between the optimism which is part of my nature—probably just a physical thing—and this knowledge of just how dark and dreadful life can be for many people.
Many of my books are—well, they're to do with death—but they're also to do with love, different aspects of human love.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3999
SOURCE: "The Queen of Crime: P. D. James," in New York Times Magazine, October 5, 1986, pp. 48-50, 54, 58, 60, 70.
[In the following essay, Symons discusses James's new book, A Taste for Death, and talks to the author about her life and writing in the detective genre.]
The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St Matthew's in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged ten.
These are the opening lines of P. D. James's new book, A Taste for Death, and they are typical of her work in their factual exactness, their brisk presentation of what we need to know about two characters who are there not just to discover corpses. The bodies, of a tramp and a Minister of Parliament, are in the Little Vestry of the church. The scene is horrific, the room a shambles, blood everywhere. And it is all garishly lit by the long fluorescent tube that disfigures the Little Vestry's ceiling. Brightening the blood, making the figures seem unreal, the ghastly light is the particular P. D. James touch that makes the reader shudder a little.
A Taste for Death is the longest, most ambitious and the best of Phyllis James's 10 novels. Her first, Cover Her Face, was written 25 years ago under the influence of the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, and for a while James stayed in the gentlemanly (or lady-like) tradition of the British detective story. She broke, away from it decisively in 1980 with Innocent Blood, which contains no puzzle element at all. And now, in the new book, she has blended a whodunit and a fully-realized modern novel. In Britain it has been given the long, respectful reviews generally accorded only a major novelist. In the United States, Alfred A. Knopf will publish it on Nov. 1, and it is already a main Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and has been sold to Warner Books for mass-market reprint for a sum said to be in the high six figures.
The Queen of Crime—a title awarded by publishers, which she would never dream of claiming for herself—lives in an elegant flat-fronted house in London's Holland Park. There, in a partly covered patio garden, we talked about her books, her life, her feelings about detective stories, and about Adam Dalgliesh, the central character in most of her novels. Dalgliesh, who began as a detective chief-inspector, and by her sixth novel, The Black Tower, had risen through the ranks to commander, appears once again in A Taste for Death. He is a dedicated professional policeman, supremely efficient, sensitive but with reticence verging on coldness in personal matters. In James's first book, we are told that Dalgliesh's wife died in childbirth, his infant son shortly thereafter. His withdrawal from any subsequent emotional commitment has been almost total. Throughout another book, Unnatural Causes, he is unable to bring himself to propose marriage to a woman he loves, and when at last he does so, it is too late. She has already written a letter saying no. Dalgliesh is also a respected poet, which substantiates the complexity that makes him unique among the professional detectives of crime fiction.
I wondered how much of all this P. D. James had initially conceived. Had Dalgliesh been based on anybody she knew?
"Absolutely not," she says. "Except for the surname, which was that of my English mistress at school. An odd spelling, isn't it? People often get it wrong. I used him in my first book, and I was chiefly concerned then with creating a detective quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur, though I admire Dorothy Sayers. I didn't imagine that years later people would be asking questions about his origin and his background. But I knew I wanted a real professional. And Dalgliesh, no doubt about it, is a good cop."
About his remoteness, she says, "I wanted him to be something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being. Perhaps that's partly why I also made him a well-known poet, though I've only dared to quote a few lines he wrote, and that was in an early book. What else? I wanted him to be quite obviously very intelligent. I hope I'm not any kind of snob, but if I am—and I suppose we're all snobbish about something or other—I'm an intellectual snob. I do like clever people, and I admire intellect."
Reminded that she had said once that nothing seems to her more sexually attractive than intelligence and talent, she gives her hearty laugh. "Yes," she says. "I'd stick to that. I could never have fallen in love with a man who was handsome but stupid. Perhaps Adam Dalgliesh is an idealized version of what I'd have liked to be if I'd been born a man."
If one were creating a character sketch of Phyllis Dorothy James purely from a reading of her books, it would be of a cool, collected figure, friendly enough, but probably difficult to know and talk to. But that is not the person who opens the door when you go up the steps and ring the bell of her house. She smiles, arms outstretched in greeting, and says, "How lovely to see you, dear." Fellow crime writers, asked for a word or phrase to describe her, said "hospitable," "unpretentious," "marvelously extrovert," "wonderfully friendly," all of which are on the mark. Yet they do not convey her utter lack of affectation and pretension, or the way she radiates good nature and pleasure in whatever she is doing, whether it is cooking for a large party ("I'm a good plain cook, emphasis on the plain"), talking to fans at a book signing or discussing intricate points of criminal detail at a conference of mystery writers.
She is little under average height, with a high color, mobile features, observant eyes. A ready and excellent conversationalist, she is inclined to call friends and even acquaintances, like myself, "dear." She is the kind of person any friend would consult in trouble, with the certainty that she would offer practical, sensible, emotionally sympathetic advice and help. If that makes her seem an unlikely creator of Adam Dalgliesh, one can imagine her having a strong fellow-feeling for her second-string detective, the private investigator Cordelia Gray, a courageous but vulnerable-seeming young woman who appears in two previous books.
A Taste for Death introduces the prickly but likable Inspector Kate Miskin, who seems destined to have a part in a future novel. In James's books, women of very different ages and social class are treated with understanding and in considerable depth.
The London house is sizable, with four bedrooms, a handsome drawing room housing her considerable collection of "Famous Trials"—all taken from courtroom transcripts—and a pleasant kitchen leading out to the patio garden. The author lives in the house alone, except for two recently acquired Burmese kittens. Her emotional life is strongly linked to her two daughters and their families—she has five grandchildren—who often come to stay.
"It suits me to live alone," she says. "I sometimes think of turning the top floor into a self-contained flat and having a lodger, but I'm not sure I'd want somebody coming in and out. I really don't like anybody about when I'm working."
Her habits, like those of many writers, are slightly obsessive. If she is writing, she gets up at 7, makes a pot of tea, settles down to work until midday. Then she shops, goes for an hour's walk, perhaps has a friend to lunch. If her grandchildren are visiting, she plays canasta with them in the evening; if not, she watches television.
Does this portrait of her seem altogether like the work of those Victorian painters who made any subject appear to be a picture in a stained-glass window? Certainly there is another P. D. James, the woman whose imagination sparks off some of the most memorable scenes in the literature of crime.
In her 1971 novel Shroud for a Nightingale, for example, the death of a student nurse during a demonstration of intragastric feeding provides one of the most effectively chilling scenes in any crime story. It had occurred to her as a possible method for murder when she witnessed just such a demonstration.
"That was an exception," she says. "My books hardly ever start with an ingenious method of murder. That's not the kind of thing that particularly interests me. Almost always the idea for a book comes to me as a reaction to a particular place and setting. Sometimes it's East Anglia, where I love the wide skies, the marshes, the estuaries, the little villages. Not pretty, but full of character. I like to create in books some kind of opposition between places and characters. Death of an Expert Witness was set at a forensic science laboratory in East Anglia, and I got great pleasure out of placing a crime in that strongly institutional setting, and contrasting the discipline of the institution with the undisciplined—anarchic, if you like—nature of murder, and showing how it affected the people."
She says that, as a result, her books are often long in the preparation. It has been four years since her most-previous book, The Skull Beneath the Skin, was published. Before sitting down to write, she spends considerable time going around with a note-book. The length of her research varies, but "I always seem to know," she says, when the time comes to begin writing, which she does partly by hand, partly on the typewriter, and finally by dictating the whole thing onto a recording machine for a typist.
She writes and speaks with much affection about East Anglia and has a cottage there, in the charming small town of Southwold, but still spends most of her time in London.
She says: "I love Southwold, but I'm an urban person. I'm at home in London, though of course there are things I dislike." She gestures at the bars on the windows in her basement dining room. "Those, for instance. Unfortunately, they're necessary, and so is the burglar alarm. I hate that, and I hate the fact that I can't walk up Notting Hill, five minutes away, in the evenings without the likelihood of being accosted. I dislike violence, I'm frightened of it, and life in this country has become much more violent in recent years. There's an underlying unrest, and it's no longer rational."
Rationality, the desire for order and reason, is something she values very highly, in small and large things equally. One woman interviewer watched in surprise as Phyllis James, after giving her coffee in the kitchen, briskly put on rubber gives and washed up the coffee cups. She has no car. ("Where would I put it? This house doesn't have a garage. I wouldn't want to leave it in the street.") Normally, she travels by train and arrives much too early at the station. The forensic and other details in her books are accurate, and a feeling for rationality and common sense is behind several of her public activities. She tends to play down the importance of these, but she is, at present, chairman of the management committee that runs the British Society of Authors, and is also a justice of the peace, which in England is a local magistrate. These are time-consuming activities.
Asked if she enjoys them, she says: "I don't think 'enjoy' is quite the word. Perhaps I enjoy the Society of Authors. One meets interesting people. But much of the time spent on the bench is incredibly dull. I regard that as a public service and think I'm quite good at it. I hope I'm not prejudiced, and I believe I'm compassionate. I'm in favor of the greatest possible intellectual freedom in our lives, but I do also very much believe in the rule of law. The two things are not contradictory. In spite of the support the state gives the poor, I'm afraid we're individually less compassionate than we were in my youth. I don't want to romanticize the past. Don't think that. When I was a child, at Ludlow in Shropshire, I saw children going to school without coats or shoes. There was real poverty in a lot of homes. Nobody would want to go back to that. And yet, you know, I'm sure people were kinder to each other then."
Are her feelings political? A laugh. "I don't think so. In my time I've voted for all three political parties, Conservative, Labor and Liberal."
Her love of the rational extends to literature. Her favorite novelist is Jane Austen, whom she rereads, every year, and she names Trollope and George Eliot among others who appeal. She has recently become immersed in Henry James. It is no surprise, perhaps, that she doesn't much care for Dickens: "I suppose I'm a classicist, not a romantic. I don't really like the caricatures he makes of characters."
Among modern novelists: "I like Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner. I think C. P. Snow's The Masters is a fine novel, and I respect the whole achievement of the Strangers and Brothers books. And I admire Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, admiration rather than enjoyment, although I think Waugh was a wonderful stylist." Joyce and his followers, modern American novelists? No. Her taste is for literal realism, not caricatural exaggeration or modernist experiments.
An Anglican, not a Roman Catholic, she has referred to herself on occasion as "quite a religious person." She goes to church not every Sunday, but sometimes.
Usually, she talks briskly, with very few hesitations or qualifications, but asked exactly what does she believe in, she answers slowly and carefully:
"I think a religious sense is like an esthetic sense. You're born with it or you aren't, and I don't mean that those born without it are less good people. I can only speak for myself. I have a need for the assurance that some beneficial power exists. I do believe in that."
Does she believe in an afterlife?
"I don't know. I'm not sure that I do."
And the existence of a personal God?
"That's a different question too." A pause. "What I will say is that I have had in my own life personal experience of the love of God."
Would that have been in difficult times?
"Yes. In difficult times."
The difficult times are now a long way back. She is in her middle 60's, and says with typical cheerful common sense that she has at most four more books left to write. Her immense success has come in the last decade, with the publication in 1977 of Death of an Expert Witness, followed three years later by Innocent Blood, which was a bestseller in America. Before that she sold well enough, but not in such numbers that she felt ready to give up her demanding and enjoyable job as a principal in the criminal policy department of the Home Office. "That job was a triumphant culmination to a life that had contained more pain, unhappiness and struggle than most. When she says some things in it were "rather appalling," the words are spoken matter-of-factly, without self-pity.
P. D. James was born in 1920, the eldest of three children in a family that was, she says, not very close. She recalls her early years as not particularly happy. Her father was an Inland Revenue officer, a restless man of whom she was sometimes frightened, although in retrospect she admires his courage and independence. And she remembers with pleasure summer holidays when he put up his old Army bell tent on the cliffs outside the East Anglian fishing port of Lowestoft, and parents and children explored the area by bus and on foot. There was not much money, and although Phyllis was sent to the excellent Cambridge High School for Girls, she left at 16, and that was the end of her education.
Phyllis James was 19 when World War II began, and not quite 21 when she married Dr. Connor Bantry White, who served during the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps. She looked after their two daughters, born in 1942 and 1944, and waited for her husband to come home.
But Dr. White returned from army service a mentally sick man, suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. Until his death in 1964, he was in and out of mental hospitals, from which he sometimes discharged himself and then had to be compulsorily readmitted. Like many other schizophrenics, at times he was violent.
When his widow speaks of him, it is with affection, even tenderness. A man who was obviously temperamentally very different from his wife—his favorite novelist was Dickens, his favorite book Ulysses—he lived long enough to see her first two books published, and was delighted by them and proud of her. But the later 1940's are a period she doesn't like to talk about. Her husband received no war pension, and the family was extremely poor. She went to evening classes and studied hospital administration, and she got a job as a £300-a-year clerk, which still left the family close to poverty. Her daughters, age 5 and 3, were sent to boarding school. For a time she lived with her in-laws, and in summer they looked after the children. It must have been a hard and bitter time. She once said that success had come to her 30 years too late.
Yet she enjoyed her professional life, and her intelligence and determination took her upward through Britain's Civil Service. In 1968, already the author of three novels, she took an examination to become a principal in the Home Office.
Asked how high on the Civil Service scale a principle is, she says, "Above an assistant principal and below a deputy secretary, dear. Are you any wiser? I was a bureaucrat. Or, if you're being polite, an administrator." Hearty laughter.
Bureaucrat or administrator, her work was important, and it has been immensely useful to her as a crime writer. She was responsible for the appointment of scientists and pathologists to all of England's forensic research laboratories—a role that put her in touch with police authorities throughout the country—an adviser to ministers on the intricate legal problems relating to juvenile crime.
This successful career, though, was never all that she wanted. She started to write in the early 1960's, when the stringencies of making a living had eased a little, beginning with a crime story because she thought it would be useful practice for the novel she would begin the next year. But in 1962, Cover Her Face was accepted by the first publisher who read it, and by the time she had written two more mysteries, she had come to think that the detective story's restrictions (the necessity of a plot, a puzzle, a solution) were really a useful discipline.
The first books are well told and enjoyable but, to use her own term, they are formula writing. With the fourth, Shroud for a Nightingale, she had the confidence to make full use of her background and the kind of people she knew well. The scene is a general hospital in the National Health Service, and she set out to create real characters with genuine motives for the way they behaved. She indulged also her intense interest in the appearance and history of buildings through her account of the hospital, "an Immense Victorian edifice of red brick, castellated and ornate to the point of fancy, and crowned with four immense turrets."
In A Taste for Death, she has invented two buildings: the church in which the bodies are found, which has "an extraordinary Romanesque basilica" designed by the Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield; and a house, designed by the great Sir John Soane, in which several of the principal characters live.
"The church, anyway the exterior, is St. Barnabas in Oxford, and some of the interior comes from a church near Marble Arch," she says. "The house is based on the marvelous Soane Museum, in Lincoln's Inn Fields. I just transferred church and house to the part of London where my story was set."
Where people live is important to her in the creation of her characters, more important, she says, than what they wear: "I'm interested in the clothes of my women characters, less so in those of the men. I believe you can describe people, and understand them through the houses or apartments they live in, the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What's the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something."
A Taste for Death is her best book in part because she has imagined in detail the settings in which she has placed even the minor characters. One lives in a dismally ordinary block of modern flats, brought to life for us by the observation of twin flower beds outside, filled with variously colored dahlias that "glare upwards like a bloodshot eye" at the inhabitants. When Dalgliesh visits a private clinic to interview a suspect, he looks at a painting by the Victorian Sir William Frith, admiring the meticulousness with which the painter shows military heroes returning from some colonial adventure, and their mantled ladies and pantalooned daughters waiting to greet them.
The concern with religion, apparent in her comments and exhibited in some earlier books, is treated boldly in the new novel. Did Sir Paul Berowne, one of the victims found in the vestry, have a religious experience a day or two before his death that would have changed him? Dalgliesh is skeptical, but the possibility adds the element of seriousness about death that James is intent on bringing to her crime stories. Looking down at the bodies, Dalgliesh thinks "We can vulgarize everything, but not this," then reflects that even so, this corpse will quickly cease to be a man and become "an exhibit, tagged, documented, dehumanised."
Although James hopes her own books will be treated as more than light entertainment, she is quite undogmatic about whether a crime story should be serious or frivolous.
"I don't think there's any one thing it should be. If it's to satisfy readers it must be excellent of its kind, and there are several kinds. I very much enjoy Edmund Crispin, who's extremely frivolous, with a marvelous comic sense. I like Sayers in spite of her social snobbery. She wrote very well. Agatha Christie wrote badly, but I respect her ingenuity. I take a lot of pleasure in Dick Francis. I don't like Patricia Highsmith's books about Tom Ripley, a psychopath who is made the hero. I think a crime story should be in favor of rationality. That's what the form is all about."
Among Americans, she admires Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and particularly Dashiell Hammett, who, "at his best was a very fine novelist," she says. "I haven't read Elmore Leonard. And of course I couldn't write like an American, or like any of the others, for that matter. But I don't think that's the way to put it. Our books are an expression of our personalities. I write detective stories. I hope they're novels, too, and I don't see any contradiction in that. But if I felt there was a contradiction, if the detective element got in the way of the novel and I had to sacrifice one or the other, then the detective element would have to go. I hope and believe I shan't have to make such a choice. I believe you write as you need to write, and you do the best you can with your particular talent. You're lucky enough to have been born with a gift, and you should be grateful for it."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6148
SOURCE: "The Unfinished Detective: The Work of P. D. James," in Critique, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 211-23.
[In the following essay, Maxfield analyzes the character of Cordelia Gray and asserts that at the end of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, there is still room for growth of the character.]
The adult's ego … continues to defend itself against dangers which no longer exist in reality; indeed, it finds itself compelled to seek out those situations in reality which can serve as an approximate substitute for the original danger, so as to be able to justify, in relation to them, its maintaining its habitual modes of reaction. (Sigmund Freud)
My father was not disposed to educate girls. (P. D. James)
P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is probably the best known of her nine mystery novels because of its unusual conception of the detective protagonist. First published in 1972, An Unsuitable Job appeared to many of its early readers to be a feminist breakthrough. The heroine, Cordelia Gray, follows a profession hitherto reserved almost exclusively to males: lone-wolf, private detective. The prevailing critical interpretation of the novel seems to hold that Cordelia triumphantly demonstrates her ability to function successfully at a job not previously deemed suitable to women. Carolyn Heilbrun characterizes Cordelia as "independent, autonomous, self-supporting, and intelligent." But in truth, although Cordelia does in large measure possess the qualities Heilbrun attributes to her, she is by no means an exemplary feminist heroine.
The obviously ironic title of the novel and its first five chapters lead the reader to think the central theme of An Unsuitable Job is going to be that at least this woman, Cordelia Gray, is quite capable of being a private detective. The title is alluded to on three separate occasions in the first half of the book; interestingly, in all three cases the speaker is a woman. Immediately after the death by suicide of Bernie Pryde, Cordelia's older partner in the detective agency, the barmaid in the pub formerly frequented by Bernie addresses Cordelia: "You'll be looking for a new job, I suppose? After all, you can hardly keep the agency going on your own. It isn't a suitable job for a woman." The barmaid's job, the server of a predominantly male clientele, is of course deemed entirely suitable for a female. The same criticism of Cordelia's choice of a profession is later made by Isabelle de Lasterie, a young French woman whose only "job" in life appears to be to look beautiful and attract male admirers. Cordelia's commitment to her profession is merely confirmed by the criticisms of women whose chosen styles of life she regards with contempt. The third reference to the title phrase is offered by Cordelia herself to complete a sentence begun by a Cambridge history tutor: "I should have thought the job was—." The tutor, Edward Horsfall, then goes on to reject Cordelia's completion in terms not wholly complimentary to either her or her sex: "Entirely suitable I should have thought, requiring, I imagine, infinite curiosity, infinite pains and a penchant for interfering with other people." Whatever the qualities that aid her in the pursuit of the truth. Cordelia functions quite effectively as a detective for the first three-quarters of the novel. No reader well versed in detective fiction would have the slightest reason up to this point to believe that any male investigator could have done a better job.
Cordelia has been hired by Sir Ronald Callender, the eminent director of a science research laboratory, ostensibly to find out why his son Mark dropped out of Cambridge in the spring term of his final year, took a job as a gardener at a country house, then hanged himself less than three weeks later. Cordelia eventually concludes that Mark had discovered that he couldn't have been the biological son of both his supposed parents (his blood type being different from either of theirs) and that therefore the inheritance that came to his mother twenty-one years before (and the one that would come to him in four years at the age of twenty-five) had been obtained under false pretenses. She also learns that when Mark's body had originally been discovered, he had been clad only in female underwear, his face smeared with lipstick, several pornographic pictures of women on a table beside him. Being told of the circumstances of Mark's death, two of his college friends. Hugo Tilling and Davie Stevens, visited the death scene with the intention of cleaning up the body so that it would present a more respectable appearance. But when they got to Mark's cottage, they found someone else had already accomplished this task—removed the female undies, the lipstick (except for a trace later noted by the police), the pornographic pictures (except for one dropped outside the cottage and later picked up by Cordelia), and covered the lower half of the body with a pair of jeans. When Cordelia confronts Sir Ronald Callender in chapter six, she hypothesizes that he strangled his son, fearing the young man would expose the fraud surrounding his birth and thus raise a scandal that would prevent Sir Ronald's laboratories from getting a grant from the Wolvington Trust. He then set up appearances to make it "look like accidental death during sexual experiment." Cordelia further surmises that Sir Ronald hired her primarily to discover who had altered the appearance of the corpse. Sir Ronald's failure to deny her charges leads both Cordelia and the reader to conclude that she has correctly solved the mystery of Mark Callender's death.
Cordelia not only exhibits the ability to ferret out and interpret evidence that we associate with the master detective, she also displays some of the raw physical courage that is the stock-in-trade of the hard-boiled private eye. When the novel's secondary villain, Sir Ronald's lab assistant. Chris Lunn, hurls Cordelia down a well, she laboriously and painfully inches her way up to the top by moving her feet and upper back alternately against the opposite walls. When Lunn returns to make sure she is dead. Cordelia confronts him with the pistol she has inherited from her deceased partner; and after Lunn flees from her, she pursues him in a high speed automobile chase.
The end of the chase—the death of Lunn in the collision of his van with a gasoline transporter—marks a turning point in the novel for Cordelia. From this moment on, she is by no means as masterful as she was before. Just prior to confronting the murderer, she passively allows her pistol to be taken away from her by his mistress-secretary Miss Leaming; she has no reply when Sir Ronald tells her that she will never be able to prove her charges against him and that if she tries, he will "ruin" her by making her "unemployable"; she stands idly by as Miss Leaming shoots her lover-employer in the head with Cordelia's own pistol. After so conspicuously failing to act decisively, Cordelia now hurls herself into a flurry of largely inappropriate activity. She attempts to disguise Sir Ronald's murder as suicide, even though Miss Leaming seems entirely ready to accept the consequences of her act. This cover-up almost results in Cordelia's being arrested as an accessory after the fact, and it doesn't save Miss Leaming who dies in an automobile accident (which may actually have been a suicide—a self-punishment for her crime). Although Cordelia survives her confrontations with both Sir Ronald and Superintendent Dalgliesh, it is through fortuitous disasters befalling others (Sir Ronald, Miss Leaming), not through clearly thought out, purposeful action of her own. Instead, she is driven to both action and inaction by psychological compulsions she scarcely understands.
Cordelia does realize that she is covering up for Miss Leaming not out of concern for the woman herself, but simply because she is Mark's mother: "I was thinking of Mark, not of you." But even when she thinks of Mark, she is thinking less of the real young man who died shortly after his twenty-first birthday than she is of a sort of male projection of herself. At one point in the story, she becomes consciously aware that her whole interpretation of what happened to Mark Callender is influenced by (if not created lock, stock, and barrel out of) her identification with him:
She believed Mark Callender had been murdered because she wanted to believe it. She had identified with him, with his solitariness, his self-sufficiency, his alienation from his father, his lonely childhood. She had even—most dangerous presumption of all—come to see herself as his avenger.
To be the avenger of a person with whom one identifies is, needless to say, to be symbolically involved in avenging oneself. Much of Cordelia's ineffectual and even misguided behavior in the last two chapters of the novel derives from her subconscious tendency to identify Mark Callender with herself, Sir Ronald with her father, and Miss Leaming with the mother she never knew.
Early in the book, we are told that Cordelia's was "a childhood of deprivation." As she tells the barmaid, "I only had a mother for the first hour of my life." She likes to believe her mother loved her intensely during that hour, and even as an adult, she occasionally holds fantasized conversations with an idealized mother she imagines to be completely supportive of her goals and ambitions: "It was just as she expected: her mother thought being a detective an entirely suitable job a for a woman." But in her actual childhood, she was abandoned by her father to a series of largely unsatisfactory surrogate mothers whose central lesson for her was the necessity of concealing her true emotions:
All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her—that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.
Since the "love" one gains by means of concealing true emotion is of doubtful authenticity, it seems certain that the deprivation of Cordelia's childhood was less material than emotional.
Her life, however, took an upswing when at the age of ten she was sent by mistake to a Catholic convent. There she was taken under the wing of Sister Perpetua who encouraged her to use her mind and apply herself to her studies. When Cordelia was fifteen, Sister Perpetua led her to believe she would have a strong chance to go to Cambridge in "two years' time." But then her father spoiled Cordelia's plans by summoning her to join him: "There were no 'A' levels and no scholarship and at sixteen Cordelia finished her formal education and began her life as cook, nurse, messenger, and general camp follower to Daddy and the comrades."
Cordelia describes her father to Miss Leaming as "an itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary." He was obviously a man to whom the cause was all important and personal relationships—including the one with his daughter—insignificant. The two references to his death in the novel suggest little grief on Cordelia's part. To Miss Leaming she merely says. "'He died in Rome last May after a heart attack and I came home.'" In doing so, she obviously left all involvement with the comrades, the Party—her father's values—behind her. When she touches the corpse of her partner Bernie, she thinks, "This was death; this was how Daddy felt. As with him the gesture of pity was meaningless and irrelevant. There was no more communication in death than there had been in life." Cordelia is named after a famous literary character who was banished by her father, but there are considerable differences between the situations of Lear's daughter and her namesake. P. D. James's Cordelia is banished at a very early age, apparently shortly after birth; she has no memory of having once been loved to console her in her banishment. And although she physically rejoins her father, it is clear that no true reconciliation ever takes place.
When Cordelia first interviews Sir Ronald Callender, the similarities between her life and Mark's must immediately strike her. He too lost his mother at an extremely early age: "she died when Mark was nine months old." (The fact that Evie Callender was not his true biological mother—something Mark didn't learn until he was twenty-one—is irrelevant to the sense of loss he would have felt when he was young.) He too was sent away by his father, "to a pre-prep school when he was five and to a prep school subsequently." Just as working for the Revolution was Cordelia's father's first interest, personal relationships being at best a very distant second, Sir Ronald Callender had dedicated his life to scientific research and will not maintain a relationship with anyone who might interfere with his cherished projects. That was why young Mark had to be sent off: "I couldn't have a child here running unsupervised in and out of the laboratory."
Cordelia thus begins her investigation of the supposed suicide of Mark Callender with a sense of the deceased young man being in several significant respects her male counterpart. Her identification with Mark makes her susceptible to do exactly the thing that Miss Markland (the elderly sister of the owner of the estate on which Mark worked as gardener) warns her against: "It's unwise to become too personally involved with another human being. When that human being is dead, it can be dangerous as well as unwise." It is likely, however, that Cordelia has succumbed to this danger even before the advice is given. A couple of pages later when she discovers a pornographic photo of a female nude crumpled in the weeds outside the cottage where Mark had been staying, her reaction to this possible bit of evidence is not detached and analytical but personal and emotional: "she felt contaminated and depressed."
When Isabelle de Lasterie eventually tells Cordelia how Mark's body looked when she found it—and Hugo sententiously explains how the death was merely the result of "bad luck," a matter of the belt buckle slipping during the performance "of one of the more innocuous of sexual deviations"—Cordelia flatly responds. "I don't believe it." Although she has by now discovered what Mark had—that he could not have been the child of both of his presumptive parents—she has not yet found any clear motive for why another person would wish to murder him. And although she has learned some admirable things about Mark—e.g., his willingness to care for the autistic child Gary Webber and the senile Dr. Gladwin—none of these things is absolutely incompatible with a preference for an "innocuous sexual deviation." (Indeed, given the fact that Mark has grown up without a mother, it might not be so unusual for him to seek to know the feminine through the experiment of dressing in female clothes and wearing lipstick—and to identify further with the deceased mother by feigning his own death by hanging.) Cordelia is unwilling to believe Hugo's interpretation of Mark's death simply because she identifies so strongly with the dead man that she can't conceive of him engaging in such a sexual deviation. (Or perhaps subconsciously, the image of Mark in female undies and lipstick uncomfortably suggests to her that she is involved in a parallel set of perverse actions in playing the role of private eye and carrying a .38 semiautomatic.) Cordelia's rejection of Hugo's theory turns out to be correct, but it is based much more on emotion than reason.
The following day Cordelia examines the will of Mark's grandfather and finds that no one—except several "highly respectable charities"—stood to benefit from the young man's death. This final piece of information leads Cordelia to the conclusion that Mark could only have been killed by someone wishing to conceal the fraud perpetrated twenty-one years earlier: the obtaining of a substantial inheritance by Evelyn Callender from her industrialist father by duping him into thinking she had produced a grandson for him. But before Cordelia can go to confront Sir Ronald with her inferences, she has to undergo a highly significant ordeal. Chris Lunn, Sir Ronald's "absolutely sinister" lab assistant flings her down a well, then clamps the cover back on leaving her to drown.
In realistic terms, Lunn's action is unaccountable. He has no way of knowing how threatening Cordelia's discoveries are to his employer. Sir Ronald later claims he has not instructed Lunn to do any more than "keep an eye on" Cordelia. Why then does the young man choose to "exceed his instructions" by trying to kill her? If Lunn knows enough to perceive Cordelia as a threat to Sir Ronald, he would surely also know why his employer hired her—to find out who altered the appearance of Mark's body. Why would Lunn attempt to kill Cordelia before she could provide Sir Ronald with the information he desired?
In the last analysis, one must conclude that Lunn acts not on the basis of realistic motivations but for essentially symbolic reasons. What does Lunn himself symbolize? For one thing, he is Ronald Callender's "true son," the son who functions as a mere extension of the father's personality. Like Sir Ronald, Chris Lunn is devoted to scientific research, whereas Mark, the biological son, although "he could very well have read one of the sciences," chose instead "to read history," to assert himself as a separate person with different interests from his father. Like Sir Ronald, Lunn is prepared to be totally ruthless to further the goals of the Callender Research Laboratory, willing even to resort to murder, while Mark's commitments were to the welfare of other people and to his conscience ("My son was a self-righteous prig," says Sir Ronald). Lunn is so completely an extension of Sir Ronald that he beds the older man's mistress Miss Leaming. Even if Lunn is technically exceeding his "instructions" when he tries to kill Cordelia, he is essentially acting as his employer's double. He is trying to kill Cordelia for exactly the same kind of reasons for which Sir Ronald killed his son.
If Lunn represents Sir Ronald in the murder attempt on Cordelia, she, because of her identification with Mark, represents the victimized and utterly rejected child. The setting chosen for the murderous attack reinforces these ideas. When Cordelia last sees the well as she is taking her final leave from Mark's cottage, she is shocked to see that Miss Markland has planted flowers about the rim: "Thus strangely celebrated, the well itself looked obscene, a wooden breast topped by a monstrous nipple." If the top of the well is thus associated with one part of the female anatomy, it is not so farfetched to associate the interior with another portion. When Cordelia is hurtling down toward the water at the bottom, the experience is strangely familiar to her: "The fall was a confusion of old nightmares, unbelievable seconds of childhood terrors recalled." The terrors of childhood are many, but surely one of the most fundamental is the terror of parental rejection—the fear that one or both parents wish the child had never been born. Such fears would come readily in early years to a child like Cordelia who would know that her birth caused her mother's death and that her father abandoned her to the care of others. For Cordelia, therefore, the psychological experience of being thrown into the well is that of being thrust back into the womb—a manifestation of her fear, or perhaps even sense, that her father would have preferred her never to have been conceived. But treading water at the bottom of the well, Cordelia does not succumb to despair; she affirms to herself her right to exist: "She had always been a survivor. She would survive." She braces herself against the opposing walls of the well and slowly, arduously inches her way upward, a process she at one point consciously identifies with a struggle to be born: "It seemed she had been climbing for hours, moving in a parody of a difficult labor towards some desperate birth."
It is significant, though, that Cordelia cannot be born again without the aid of two other people. One is the dead Mark Callender, whose belt—the one with which he was hanged—Cordelia wrapped twice around her waist earlier that morning. When she is exhausted from the climb, her strength nearly gone, she loops the belt over the ladder just out of reach above her and pulls herself up to the top of the well. The belt that caused Mark's death thus becomes a means to preserve her life. But Cordelia's climb, to the top of the well does not of itself save her; she is not physically able to remove the heavy wooden cover of the well, and she presently realizes that the murderer will be returning before sunrise to make sure she has drowned. Only the fortuitous arrival of Miss Markland, who removes the well cover before Lunn returns, saves Cordelia from being flung back down the well a second time.
The significance of Miss Markland's role in the novel will be examined below; for now, it is sufficient to note that instead of lavishing gratitude on her savior, Cordelia briskly dismisses the older woman and prepares to confront her attacker. She makes two significant preparations for this encounter: she puts on one of Mark's jumpers and gets and loads the pistol she inherited from Bernie. Wearing the jumper like wearing the belt affirms her solidarity with Mark as she anticipates facing the person who, at this moment, she must assume to be his killer. The pistol is a more complexly symbolic object. If being a private detective is not conventionally regarded as a suitable job for a woman, Cordelia's possession of the .38 is not merely unsuitable but illegal. Throughout the first three-quarters of the novel, this illegal weapon is Cordelia's prized possession, a source of security and confidence to her:
Bernie had meant her to have the gun and she wasn't going to give it up easily.
It was a heavy object to carry with her all the time but she felt unhappy about parting with it, even temporarily.
… she longed for the reassurance of the hard cold metal in her hand.
She … could see … the crooked, comforting outline of the pistol….
I'm perfectly safe. Besides I have a gun.
But when Cordelia confronts (and recognizes) Chris Lunn, she realizes "she wouldn't fire" even though "in that moment, she knew what it was that could make a man kill." And in the following chapter she passively yields the pistol to Miss Leaming, for Cordelia now believes "she could never defend herself with it, never kill a man." The pistol ultimately becomes to her (although she wouldn't put it in these terms) a symbol of phallic aggression, of a ruthless destructiveness she perceives as distinctly male in character. This does not mean that a woman cannot use a pistol in a violent aggressive manner (Miss Leaming does so only a few pages later), but that Cordelia has chosen to define herself as a woman for whom such an action would be … unsuitable.
After the death of Ronald Callender, Cordelia goes so far as to claim "she hadn't wanted him to die," but it seems highly probable that the real reason she covers up for Miss Leaming is simply because the older woman has done exactly the thing she herself wished to do. Sir Ronald is the heightened image of her own rejecting father. Miss Goddard (the former Nanny Pilbeam, nursemaid to Mark's presumed mother and briefly to the boy himself) speaks of how Mr. Bottley "never really cared for [his daughter] Miss Evie," perhaps because his wife died when the child was born. Miss Goddard, however, considers this "just an excuse for not taking to the child." Thinking of her own background, Cordelia replies, "Yes, I knew a father who made it an excuse too. But it isn't their fault. We can't make ourselves love someone just because we want to." Strangely, much the same argument is put forth by Ronald Callender when he is justifying to Cordelia his decision to kill his son: "… if [a parent] doesn't love, there's no power on earth which can stimulate or compel him. And when there's no love, there can be none of the obligations of love." Sir Ronald, of course, is a little more extreme in his denial of the "obligations of love": he literally murdered his son where Cordelia's father merely destroyed the life she wanted, the one she would have led if allowed to attend Cambridge. Nevertheless, Cordelia obviously perceives Mark's victimization as a mirror of her own.
Cordelia allows the pistol to be taken from her, because she knows she will not be able to use it against Ronald Callender. One reason is her shock at witnessing the violent death of Chris Lunn, but another surely is her identification of Sir Ronald with her father. No matter how evil the scientist is, how deserving of punishment, for Cordelia to shoot him would symbolically be an act of parricide. After he has been killed by Miss Leaming, Cordelia denies that she had "wanted him to die" because to admit this desire would be tantamount to acknowledging she wished for her own father's death—something it is highly probable that she did wish for since his death released her from a form of slavery and allowed her to seek an independent life. And Cordelia's behavior at the event indicates that the death of Sir Ronald was also desired by her. When she sees Miss Leaming approaching with "the gun held closely against her breast" (signifying that this killing will be an act of the heart, motivated by maternal love, in contrast to Sir Ronald's coldly rational of murder), Cordelia knows "exactly what [is] going to happen," because it is what she has subconsciously wished for. Although she feels as if there is time for her to intervene, "to leap forward and wrench the gun from that steady hand," she makes no move—not even when Sir Ronald "[turns] his head toward Cordelia as if in supplication." The use of the world "supplication" suggest Ronald Callender is begging Cordelia, not Miss Leaming, for mercy—as if the younger woman has passed sentence on him and the older is merely the executioner who carries it out. Cordelia may merely be imagining the supplication she sees on the man's face, but she clearly chooses not to respond to it—she allows the execution to proceed.
If Ronald Callender is associated in Cordelia's mind with her father, it stands to reason that Miss Leaming, the true mother of Cordelia's counterpart Mark, should symbolically be associated with her mother. Early in the novel, we are told that Cordelia likes to fantasize about her dead mother, imagine her as someone warmly supportive of her daughter's goals in life. The only surrogate mother Cordelia has ever had who did play such a role in her life was Sister Perpetua who encouraged her to "try for Cambridge." When Cordelia is struggling to climb out of the well, she partially loses consciousness and has a brief dream vision in which Sister Perpetua oddly turns into Miss Leaming:
Sister Perpetua was there. But why wasn't she looking at Cordelia? Why had she turned away? Cordelia called her and the figure turned slowly and smiled at her. But it wasn't Sister after all. It was Miss Leaming, the lean pale face sardonic under the white veil.
This dream may indicate Cordelia's subconscious realization that what she needs or desires at this particular point in her life is not the teacher, Sister Perpetua, but the avenger, Miss Leaming. Although Elizabeth Leaming has been subservient to Ronald Callender for much of her adult life (her role being only a slightly glorified version of the one Cordelia played for her father), she is nevertheless more on a level of equality with him than the youthful Cordelia—and as Mark's real mother she has a greater right to avenge his death. Mark's mother taking revenge on his cruel and heartless father symbolically represents Cordelia's mother exacting retribution on her daughter's heartless (if not quite so cruel) father. Although Cordelia and Miss Leaming "don't even like each other," they are nevertheless allies against the evil father.
The novel, however, contains another mother figure for Cordelia. This is Miss Markland, who by removing the cover of the well insures that Cordelia's "difficult labor" does culminate in (re)birth. Miss Markland's role might at first seem to be more that of the midwife than the mother, but a couple of pages after the rescue, she makes clear that she at least regards Cordelia as a surrogate child. Years before, "her son, the four-year-old child of herself and her lover" had drowned in the very same well. By saving Cordelia's life, she has partially redeemed herself for her neglect or carelessness that led to the death of the child. Listening with appalled fascination to the story, Cordelia realizes, "What to her [Cordelia] had been a horror, to Miss Markland had been a release. A life for a life."
Cordelia, though, is reluctant to accept the relationship that she feels Miss Markland has thrust upon her. She almost brutally drives the older woman out of the cottage: "You've saved my life and I'm grateful. But I can't bear to listen. I don't want you here. For God's sake go!" Jane S. Bakerman interprets this action as a sign of Cordelia's maturity: she chooses to behave "coldly—but professionally" instead of acceding to Miss Markland's "demand" for "attention, support, daughterliness, comfort." But it seems to me that Cordelia's rejection of Miss Markland is neither cold nor professional. Certainly there would have been nothing "unprofessional" about seeking Miss Markland's practical assistance—asking her to call the police, for example. In truth Cordelia drives Miss Markland away not for rational reasons but emotional ones. She wants to avenge herself directly and personally on her attacker. She is also terrified by the story of the drowned child: "… it was horrible and unthinkable and she could not bear to hear it." She cannot bear this story, because it is once again her story. An illegitimate and perhaps unwanted child is left to wander about on his own and tumbles to his death in cold suffocating, water. The same thing could easily have happened to Cordelia in her early years—and perhaps in an emotional-psychological sense it did happen. Cordelia's ability to respond openly to other people, to reveal her innermost feelings, perhaps even to herself, perished in the cold, suffocating water of the well of loneliness that was her childhood.
Because of Cordelia's deeply ingrained sense of the harm that has been done to her in her childhood, she cannot respond maturely to Miss Markland's display of her own grief. When she is told the story of the child's drowning, Cordelia tells herself Miss Markland "must be mad." Later she has a similar response after seeing how Miss Markland has planted flowers about the well: "She was suddenly terrified of meeting Miss Markland, of seeing the incipient madness in her eyes." But Miss Markland is not mad. Rather she has wisely given expression in her outburst to Cordelia to grief and guilt she has (unwisely) kept pent up for years. Similarly, her planting of the flowers around the well, converting it into a shrine for her dead son, seems a fundamentally healthy action. She is no longer going to repress the memory of her son and his death but instead pay tribute to his memory—just as Mrs. Goddard does in faithfully tending the grave of her husband. Identifying only with the suffering of the neglected child, Cordelia either cannot or refuses to empathize with the sufferings of the remorseful negligent parent. Were she to understand and forgive Miss Markland, Cordelia might also have to forgive her father and the "succession of foster mothers." The utterly evil Ronald Callender, on the other hand, in no way disturbs Cordelia's self-righteousness.
An Unsuitable Job does not contain an unlimited number of parent figures, but it does offer quite a few. Two additional father figures deserve some comment. Bernie Pryde has been Cordelia's mentor in the detective business; in a sense he has almost adopted her in that he has given her a bedsitting room in his house. But Bernie, although as senior partner in the firm he is in a position of nominal authority over her and is definitely old enough to be her father, is regarded by Cordelia as essentially another child. His childlike quality is evidenced in his "boyishly naive obsession" with the .38 semi-automatic and his psychological dependency on his father figure, Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, who is the source of all of Bernie's wisdom concerning criminal investigative processes. In this sense, Bernie like Cordelia is an abandoned child, for Dalgliesh got him fired from the police force.
When Cordelia is interrogated by Dalgliesh, Bernie's father figure easily becomes her own. As with the other fathers in her life, Cordelia instinctively mistrusts him: "He sounded gentle and kind, which was cunning since she knew that he was dangerous and cruel…." Dalgliesh exerts pressure on Cordelia to confess her part in the cover-up of Ronald Callender's murder, and she resolutely sticks to her story even though she is increasingly tempted not to "confess" but to "confide" the truth to the Superintendent. To an extent, she is yearning for a reconciliation with the father, for the establishment of genuine communication with him. This communication occurs in a different way after Dalgliesh announces Miss Leaming's death and tells Cordelia she need not return for further questioning. At that moment, Cordelia's defenses suddenly crumble, and she expresses her emotions totally and openly. Her dramatic and uncontrollable crying is basically for herself (she is still, I think, not mature or empathetic enough to cry for Miss Leaming); but when she expresses "her pent-up misery and anger" in words to Dalgliesh, "strangely enough" her grievances are focused on Bernie. This displacement of her own self-pity onto Bernie is in actuality not so strange at all. Bernie is the "child" who has been cast off by Dalgliesh just as Cordelia was cast off by her father. Although he does not acknowledge any sense of wrong doing for firing Bernie, Dalgliesh does apologize for having forgotten the man's existence and in a sort of backhand compliment to Pryde's junior partner tells Cordelia, "I'm beginning to wonder if I didn't underestimate him." Dalgliesh's concessions may seem slight, but appear to be greater than any ever made to Cordelia by her own father. The interview with Dalgliesh, although it doesn't seem strictly necessary to the mystery plot of the novel—which is adequately resolved by the information Cordelia receives from Miss Leaming in their final conversation—is important to Cordelia's psychological development, because it suggests that some degree of true reconciliation with the father is possible.
When asked why she has chosen to write mystery novels, P. D. James once replied:
I think there may have been in my very early life some emotional trauma or insecurity, and this [writing murder mysteries] is some way of trying to construct a world in which there is an ultimate answer to problems that may otherwise seem unacceptable seem unacceptable or insolvable.
I would suspect that in Cordelia Gray, James, is portraying this "early trauma or insecurity" more directly than in her other novels (with the possible exception of Innocent Blood) and that the author's identification with her protagonist's plight creates a characterization of far greater depth and complexity than is the norm for mystery fiction. But the "trauma or insecurity" may also give rise to the most obvious flaw of the book. Chris Lunn and Sir Ronald Callender are so utterly villainous that they belong more to the realm of myth or fairy tale (the evil sorcerer and his faithful troll) than to that of realistic fiction. In essence these characters are merely projections of Cordelia's worst fears concerning parental authority. Killing them off, therefore, is, as James says, a way of providing in her fiction "an ultimate answer" (total destruction of representatives of the trauma's source) to a problem that in real life can never be completely solved or removed. But even though the novel disposes of its villains rather patly, the treatment of the heroine is completely realistic: we know at the end of the book that Cordelia Gray not only needs to but will continue to grow and that her battles with the past as she moves into the future will by no means all be lost.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4694
SOURCE: "'Sweet Thames, Run Softly': P. D. James's Waste Land in A Taste for Death," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1988, pp. 105-18.
[In the following essay, Richardson delineates the common symbolism and imagery between T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James's A Taste for Death and asserts that work is still meaningful to readers who do not recognize the influence.]
The considerable popular success of P. D. James's A Taste for Death defies current conventions of detective and suspense publishing. A Taste for Death is 459 pages in hard-cover edition at a time when detective novels more often are between 170 and 230 pages. The writing is literate, and it is literary: the novel teems with allusions to literature and other arts. Of violence there is little and of explicit sex, none.
The reader sees the slaughtered bodies of Sir Paul Berowne and tramp Harry Mack but sees them distanced through the shocked eyes of an aging spinster; at the end of the novel, an old woman's death is graphically shown. Thwarted personality development, including sexual development, leads to the multiple murders, but the reader must figure that out for herself or himself. And that is all. How, then, does James produce a work that for many weeks appeared on the New York Times list of best sellers, that is sold in supermarkets and discount stores, and that appeals to relatively unsophisticated undergraduates in college detective fiction courses?
In part, James succeeds because her writing is firmly based on myths and symbols that are commonplaces of modern culture as well as conspicuous features of well known literary works. Her writing, then, is accessible to the reader who can recognize the literary references, but it is equally accessible, if not as meaningful, to the reader who merely responds with emotion to symbols familiar from film, song, and television. For example, in A Taste for Death, James calls upon many of the symbols and images seen in the writings of T. S. Eliot, especially The Waste Land, but these devices—among them, water, rats, abortion, isolation—would have an emotional impact upon readers completely unfamiliar with Eliot's work.
The plot of A Taste for Death is itself unexceptional and would not seem to justify the lengthy text. Miss Emily Wharton, age sixty-five, routinely goes to arrange flowers in the church of St. Matthew's in Paddington, London. On this occasion, she is accompanied by her self-appointed guardian, 10-year-old streetwise urchin Darren Wilkes, who pities the lonely, naive woman. In the Little Vestry of the church, they find the bodies of Berowne, who has undergone a religious experience there and has asked to stay there again on the night of his death, and of Mack, who habitually doses there for lack of better ideas. Their throats have been cut.
Commander Adam Dalgliesh, a James series detective, is called into the case, if, indeed, there is one. Previously acquainted with and sympathetic to Berowne, Dalgliesh insists this is double murder, although Berowne's death might conveniently be dismissed as suicide, while of unsound mind, following the meaningless murder of Mack. Assisted by Chief Inspector John Massingham and Inspector Kate Miskin, both personally plagued by problems involving aging relatives, Dalgliesh interviews Lady Ursula Berowne, the victim's mother; Barbara Berowne, his widow; Stephen Lampart, Barbara's cousin and lover; Dominic Swayne, Barbara's brother, and a number of minor characters including Berowne servant Evelyn Matlock (Mattie), Berowne mistress Carole Washburn, and unsuccessful romantic novelist Millicent Gentle. Through the latter, Dalgliesh traces the last hours of Berowne's life, makes a case for murder, and identifies Dominic Swayne as the killer. On the run, Swayne wounds Father Barnes, priest of St. Matthew's, almost murders young Darren, and does kill Kate Miskin's grandmother after taking Miskin and the older woman as hostages. Captured, Swayne maintains he will soon be free again, and, for all the reader knows, he is right.
This plot line, however, is fleshed out by James's symbols, most importantly water. The Thames, "London's dark blood stream," is central to this novel in much the same way as the Thames is vital to Eliot's Waste Land and the Mississippi to Huckleberry Finn and Show Boat. Of symbolic value, also, is the filthy, stagnant canal with littered banks (a contrast with the flow of the great river) along which much of the action occurs.
Such usage is typical of James. In her Unnatural Causes, the scene is the seacoast; the flickering lights in the homes along the shore, tiny and fragile against the sea's turbulence, would suggest loneliness even to a reader unacquainted with Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." The climax of this novel is clearly symbolic action: Dalgliesh builds a frail human bridge across raging waters. That bridge is destroyed by the murderer, just as murder, in the abstract, destroys the sense of community that, in James's work, is essential to a fully human existence. In The Black Tower, the sterility of life in a nursing home is measured by the patients' desire to see the ocean and their inability to do so. The setting of The Skull Beneath the Skin is an island, haunted by present and past violence perpetrated by those who ignore John Donne's "overworked aphorism" and gratify their own selfish desires at the expense of the larger human community of which they deny they are a part. In several novels, as in A Taste for Death, storms occur at moments of revelation; in much the same way, Eliot placed "What the Thunder Said" as the concluding section of The Waste Land. For both writers, the storm's great message seems to be Eliot's "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata" ("Give, sympathize, control").
In A Taste for Death, as in Eliot's poem, the Thames unifies past and present. (An entirely different article might be written about how it links problems of the aging, or the past, with problems of abortion, or the future.) As F. O. Matthiessen remarks of The Waste Land, "this glimpse of present life along the river, depressingly sordid as it is, being human cannot be wholly different from human life in the past." To make this point, Eliot calls upon images of the first Queen Elizabeth; James evokes images of the England of Webster, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, and many more. While visiting Berowne's constituency, for instance, Dalgliesh, confronting the problems of power politics, sits at the table where Benjamin Disraeli once dined and gazes out over the river as that great Victorian statesman must once have gazed.
The questers for truth in this novel live near the river. Dalgliesh lives in a high place overlooking the Thames. Kate Miskin, an apprentice quester, looks forward to having a similar place. The archetypal Wise Woman of this tale, Millicent Gentle, lives in a "large white shack on stilts" almost in the water. From her "wide sitting room windows it was possible to imagine oneself on a ship with nothing in view but the white veranda rail and the sheen of the river." Gentle is the Aphrodite described by psychologist Christine Downing as "a connecting, not a dissolving, consciousness" in whose waters "we do not drown, but discover reflections which add depth to our experience." Berowne draws serenity from her during the final days of his life. From her, Kate Miskin learns a new and positive view of life. Walking along the river near Gentle's shack, Dalgliesh experiences a moment of inexplicable, transcendent joy.
Most characters' lives, though, are represented by the foul canal, not the flowing river. In Eliot's Waste Land, "A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal…." Swayne stalks Darren along just such a canal. As he prepares to kill the child, they see a dead rat, looking "curiously human in death, with its glazed eye and the small paws raised as if in a last despairing supplication." This image of the vile, but in this case poignant, outcast and predator, a familiar figure in contemporary film and television, represents both Swayne and Darren, although Darren will be given a new life at the novel's end. Both are predators upon life, but they are also victims of the foul backwaters of life. They exist as animals. Likewise, the rubbish on these banks is familiar, not only from film but from Eliot who, in The Waste Land, sees the "testimony of summer nights" as an array of "empty bottles, sandwich paper, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends…." James uses trash to represent spiritual desolation in other of her novels. The beach is strewn with debris in The Black Tower; Innocent Blood in part takes place in an "industrial wasteland"; an innocent young man is sacrificed to science in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman near a lovely copse that secretly harbors junk.
If trash represents the spiritual state of the community, individual despair is represented, again as in The Waste Land (and in popular culture since the best sellers of Charles Dickens, if not before) by incongruous dwelling places. Whatever James's characters have in common, writes Danial Dix, they share "the sense of being out of place in their very homes." This, too, is characteristic of James's writings in which, with conspicuous regularity, stately homes are chopped up into cells. For instance, in A Mind to Murder, cells for psychiatric treatment have been hewn from a Georgian house, while sociologists and oriental scholars are crammed into a late eighteenth-century building in Innocent Blood. In Shroud for a Nightingale and The Black Tower, old buildings have been carved up for similarly utilitarian medical purposes. In A Taste for Death, Emily Wharton, discoverer of the bodies, lives in a room in a seedy boarding house where she is bullied by the neighbors and ashamed to reveal that she must use the toilet or empty a chamberpot. (Without realizing the implications for her own life, she decides she could not keep a cat in such confinement.) Darren Wilkes shares squalid rooms with a drunken slut of a mother; he pathetically decorates his own space, as best he can, with the products of his thievery. Father Barnes, failed priest, lives in the one decent flat in a tacky building that has replaced an old rectory; there he is bullied by his housekeeper. Carole Washburn lives in an anonymous cell in "an apartment house of the dead." Even Kate Miskin, until late in the novel, isolates herself, trying to cut herself off from her grandmother and her miserable childhood in an urban housing project. She wants rigidly separate compartments for her past, her career, her painting, and her sex life.
These are victims of "a crowded world where noninvolvement" is "practically a social necessity." More spiritually desolate are those who possess economic and intellectual resources but who nonetheless live fragmented lives cut off from the larger human community. Members of the Berowne family are among them. Sir Paul Berowne has lived a "separate cabined" life in an historic house. He reserves space in other places for the various pieces of his life: intimacy, political duties, and the rest. These shards are not allowed to overlap. Examining the study in Berowne's home, Dalgliesh feels that he is in a museum, that Berowne must have "sat in this richly ornamented cell like a stranger." Elsewhere in the house, Lady Ursula lives in her own museum, one celebrating a world that died in 1914, its mood qualified only by the invalid equipment that emphasizes her own isolation. Belowstairs lives Mattie, given sanctuary by the family and then exploited and emotionally abandoned.
More ominous are the lovers, Barbara Berowne and Stephen Lampart. Barbara is the elegant lady of The Waste Land's "A Game of Chess," encapsulated by her own beauty and by terminal ennui. When Barbara recalls her parents' heartless conversations about her and her brother Swayne, it is clear that both are the victims of complete emotional impoverishment. Barbara simply does not know that she exists unless men desire her. She "likes to feel that attention is being paid to her," Lampart tells Lady Ursula. "You have to admit that about the sexual act. Attention, specific and intense, is certainly being paid." Fixed forever in the emotional crises of an unloved childhood, Barbara, like any other emotional infant, enjoys seeing pain inflicted on the world that has caused her own agony, and so she is sexually excited by watching Lampart perform cesarean sections on other women in what is a kind of scientific parody of the black mass. Dalgliesh wonders if Lampart and Barbara copulate on the operating table after the surgery.
Lampart, too, makes a kind of cult of pain and death. An aggressive social climber without a fixed place in the world, he has become an obstetrician who "dislikes children intensely," does not much like women, and has had himself sterilized. His "elegant Edwardian villa" has been carved into a nursing home where wealthy mothers-to-be can indulge themselves in luxury, only to be "outraged" when labor starts and they realize "that there are some humiliations and discomforts that even dear Stephen can't do much about." But, just as the luxury is a thin veneer over the harsh realities of childbirth, so the nursing home itself is a facade covering a grimmer reality. Lampart also runs an abortion clinic there. After amniocentesis, women can choose to abort if they do not like the sex of the embryo, providing they can pay Lampart's fees. As has the killer of his son in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Lampart has substituted the cult of science and self for a more humane creed and is a zealot in defense of his religion of death. With Lampart's "fanaticism," Dalgliesh thinks, he might have been "a seventeenth-century religious mercenary."
Then there are the utterly homeless, whose rootlessness makes them victims or killers. One of these, of course, is Harry Mack, but in this novel, as in The Waste Land, there are "nymphs" who are also "departed." Theresa Nolan was bred in a country cottage where her room "held a green luminosity as if it were underwater," but she has come to the city, wandered from job to job, been impregnated by Swayne and abandoned, had an abortion, been overwhelmed with guilt, and sought out a green park glade in which to kill herself. If she is a spirit of the woods, Diana Travers is the spirit of the water. A woman of many disguises, Diana is either killed by Swayne or allowed to drown because she mocked him. Her death occurs after she dives naked into the Thames. She is pulled from the water with "weeds wrapped around her neck like a green scarf." Mattie is another such victim. She is the unstable daughter of a man who, perhaps through Berowne's carelessness, has been convicted of murder and died in prison. Her fragile sanity shattered, she has been institutionalized and taken in by Berowne after her release. So lonely is she that she provides Swayne with an alibi for the brutal murders rather than give up the illusion of love, although what Swayne offers her is merely the mechanical sex of Eliot's "young man carbuncular." Sex, as Lampart remarks, is one way of getting attention.
Rootlessness and emotional and intellectual impoverishment, carried to an extreme, result in Dominic Swayne. His nickname, "Dicco," suggests the dickens, euphemism for the devil, but his last name suggests Eliot's Apeneck Sweeney. In his person, he resembles Sweeney with his broad shoulders, long arms, and "simian strength." His grotesque appearance, in fact, has caused his father to question his legitimacy, as Barbara remembers in recalling their childhood. Rejected by parents, without Barbara's protective beauty, Swayne steals bits of life wherever he finds them. He stays with a reluctant acquaintance and borrows cars and even bathwater from Barbara Berowne. Swayne does not want to be exiled from the human community; even at the end, a multiple killer, he brags that it is through him that Darren's leukemia has been diagnosed and the child given another chance. But, even more than his sister, Swayne is emotionally an infant, and he knows no other way to relate to people except through destruction. When he kills Kate's grandmother, he boasts that he is doing Kate a favor in relieving her of a burden; he cannot rejoin his mother because he has destroyed a stepfather's prized painting. His destructive relationship with Paul Berowne is violently Oedipal, with Barbara as its object, and he believes Barbara, who is incapable of love, will love him when she learns he has killed the husband who threatened to leave her. He might, he says, have spared Berowne had the latter begged for mercy (that is acknowledged Swayne's power), but Berowne did not and so was destroyed, in Freud's words, as god, as father, and as "totem-animal-sacrifice" to Swayne's rapacious emotional hunger. For Swayne, as for Sweeney in Eliot's "Sweeney Agonistes" and for the villains in a thousand movies, "Life is death." Yet, while a predator, Swayne is also the inevitable product of a rootless society, which is why the reader is apt to believe him when he claims he will soon be loose again. If not this Swayne, society will spawn many others like him.
Opposed to these characters are those who seek truth, primarily Sir Paul Berowne and Adam Dalgliesh. Berowne is the Fisher King, the Maimed King, described by Jessie L. Weston in From Ritual to Romance and used by Eliot in The Waste Land, although he is portrayed so that he might be any basically decent martyred leader from popular culture or real life. Mythically, in Cleanth Brook's words concerning Eliot, the plight of the desolate land "is summed up by, and connected with, the plight of the lord of the land, the Fisher King, who has been rendered impotent by maiming or sickness." Eliot's poem, Brooks continues, is based upon contrast "between two kinds of life and two kinds of death. Life devoid of meaning is death; sacrifice, even the sacrificial death, may be life-giving, an awakening to life." But the Fisher King's experiences are meaningless unless a knight—in this story, Dalgliesh—can remove the curse by asking "the meanings of the various symbols that are displayed to him in the castle."
Berowne, whose first name suggests the Paul of the Bible, is a "Minister of the Crown," a leader of his country. He is also a fundamentally decent man whose life is a mess. One observer says that his "critical faculty" was suborned by Barbara's beauty, that he mistook her, probably, for the "Holy Grail." In an earlier meeting, while they sat in a railroad compartment as if they were "two penitents in a private confessional," Berowne had told Dalgliesh that "Most of the things I expected to value in life have come to me through death." His title came by way of the death of his older brother in northern Ireland. So did Barbara, who had been engaged to this brother, but Berowne still could not have married Barbara had not his first wife died in an auto accident. No one, including Berowne, is sure how much responsibility he bears for that accident.
All these prizes are hollow. Barbara is shallow. While she is pregnant by him at the time of his death, he finds intimacy not with her but with Carole Washburn. His daughter is alienated by the events leading to his marriage to Barbara and has run away. In his spiritual illness, he is spectacularly insensitive to the needs of others—Mattie is one, but not the only one. He can do nothing for the plights of his constituents but lecture them on his powerlessness. Having lost touch with, or trivialized, the potentially most meaningful relationships, he becomes fixed in the blind rituals of his caste and position, much as Lampart makes a creed of his science, as social workers form a "new priesthood" in Innocent Blood, as a scientist sacrifices his son to his cult of science in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Berowne is different, though, in that he does not believe in what he is doing.
His life is transformed by an undefined religious experience in the Little Vestry. He astounds those around him with his plans to change his life; only Lady Ursula is prepared to cope, taking steps to guarantee the life and inheritance of his unborn son. Berowne returns to the vestry, having found peace during his last hours with Millicent Gentle. Indeed, Swayne says that, when Berowne realizes he is to die at Swayne's hands, he is acquiescent. "He knew I was coming," says Swayne. "He was expecting me." Instead of pleading for his life, Berowne simply says, "So it's you. How strange that it has to be you." Swayne later complains that it was "As if I had no choice. Just an instrument. Mindless." The vestry, then, is the Perilous Chapel of which Weston writes when she describes "the story of an initiation (or perhaps it would be more correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried out on the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical." With Berowne in death is the novel's ultimate rootless victim, Harry Mack, who looks, the next morning, as if he were wearing a "breastplate of blood," a phrase suggesting the chivalric images that haunt this novel.
As the knight who is to interpret, Dalgliesh comes to the case with some prior knowledge based on previous meetings with Berowne. His attitude toward Berowne's religious conversion is ambiguous, although he impulsively lights a candle to the victim's memory, just as, in A Mind to Murder, he recalls lighting a candle on the day his own wife and infant son died. A blocked poet, Dalgliesh perceives Berowne as a kind of alter ego and even their physical resemblance is marked. Dalgliesh's function in the novel is, indeed, to question and try to understand. He is a less active figure here than in the other novels in which he appears, remaining strangely in the background even in the search for Swayne.
His passivity, though, is typical. In this novel, characters are caught up in inexorable events that lead to other events, just as Swayne believes himself to be a mindless instrument in Berowne's death. That death sets other events in motion; as Eliot writes in Murder in the Cathedral, the "small folk" are "drawn into the pattern of fate." Emily Wharton is one such person. Another is Father Barnes who, after Swayne is identified as the killer, encounters him in the church. Swayne later calls Barnes a "priest with a taste for martyrdom," a phrase evocative of Eliot's Thomas Becket; like Becket, Barnes rises to a kind of spiritual courage that his previous behavior had only hinted at. Barnes challenges Swayne, addressing him as "My son" and correctly naming the evidence for which Swayne is searching. Swayne shoots him. Lying bleeding in the church nave, Barnes faces death with courage and without self-pity. Unlike Becket, however, Barnes survives on into comic anticlimax, exploiting the sensational events in the church to increase his congregation and collection.
Kate Miskin is drawn in and renewed. At the novel's beginning, she is bitter and aloof, defending her fragile identity by inventing tidy compartments for various aspects of her life. Yet she has chosen the career of detective or seeker of truth. In following Dalgliesh, she encounters Millicent Gentle, from whom she learns spiritual wholeness and the acceptance of life. That same point about wholeness is made again when Kate's life is saved by her lover. Alan Scully. A literate and religious man, Scully does not allow himself to be compartmentalized. A literary reference concerning Berowne's last name brings Kate's danger to his attention, and his dogged insistence brings the police to her rescue. Had he been content to be one of Kate's compartments, she would have died.
Held hostage and waiting for death, Kate is moved to tenderness, for the first time, by her grandmother's vulnerability. Where once she found the aging flesh repulsive, now she helps the old woman to the toilet, shielding her grandmother from Swayne with her own body. In doing so, she learns for the first time of her own parentage and of her dead mother's love for her, knowledge that she needs but had previously rebuffed.
Unlikely as it may seem, a vital moment of communion occurs at that moment in the bathroom, but the water of the toilet is part of the general water imagery of the novel. Just as Miss Emily should not need to conceal her chamberpot or be shamed by her flushing of the toilet and Swayne should not have had to steal his bathwater from Berowne, so Kate should not have been repelled by the facts of animal existence that all humans share. Her acceptance of the basic facts of existence is an essential part of her growth. There are other such moments of communion in the novel. At the beginning, Emily and Darren share tomato soup and fish fingers in "a ritual communion." Father Barnes and his bullying housekeeper are finally united by their common awareness of the "gushing" waterpipes at the church, a "blood-stained gurgle" that carries off the mixed blood of Berowne and Mack, of lord and tramp.
In A Taste for Death, this kind of communion is the one victory that humans can attain. Most of the time—Scully's case is one exception—intentions count for very little. Despite his destructiveness, Swayne is the instrument by which Darren is given another chance. Kate, at the moment of her grandmother's death, for the first time wants her grandmother to live. Barbara Berowne's childhood deprivation causes her to torment Mattie until Mattie betrays Swayne, Barbara's brother. Emily trying to help Darren, becomes the instrument by which Swayne traces the child and attempts to kill him, but she herself could not have found Darren had not Kate betrayed his whereabouts because of her own childhood hatred of social workers. Dalgliesh traces Berowne's final hours, but it's a chance question from Kate that leads to Millicent Gentle's crucial revelations. More often than not, humans are instruments in some pattern greater than they, or the reader, can comprehend.
Central to that pattern is the church. A Taste for Death ends, as it begins, with Emily Wharton in church. She, too, has suffered and changed. She has seen horror. She has loved Darren, and he has been taken away from her. The routine flower arrangements of the opening chapter have given way to a search for truth, one that necessarily begins in doubt. At the novel's end, she kneels, gripping the grille (a kind of cage that appears often in the novel), and prays because she once heard a priest say, "If you find that you no longer believe, act as if you still do. If you feel that you can't pray, go on saying the words." She asks God to speak to her. He does not, because James does not provide easy or sentimental answers. But, like Dalgliesh and the other seekers, Emily is beginning to ask the right questions. The novel does reward—spiritually and emotionally, not economically or physically—those who do that.
That James is a reader of Eliot is obvious, since, among other things, a passage from his "Whispers of Immortality" introduces The Skull Beneath the Skin. Her appreciation of this literature, however, far transcends the use of prefatory poetry. Eliot's lore, images, and symbols are intrinsic to A Taste for Death. Yet her artistry is such that the work can be read meaningfully by those entirely unaware of these intellectual underpinnings. As detective stories go, then, this is a work of unusual richness and complexity. As writing goes, it is the kind praised by Eliot himself in "The Use of Poetry": "The most useful poetry, socially, would be one which could cut across all the present stratifications of public taste—stratifications which are perhaps a sign of social disintegration." In A Taste for Death, James has stretched the detective story far beyond that genre's conventionally narrow boundaries.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12233
SOURCE: "The City as Mosaic: P. D. James," in A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women, University of Tennessee Press, 1989, pp. 152-87.
[In the following essay, Sizemore analyzes the role of London, with its mosaic of villages and people, in James's fiction, especially A Taste for Death and Innocent Blood.]
A strong sub-genre of urban fiction is the detective novel. Throughout the twentieth century, women writers have infiltrated this seemingly "masculine" genre. Among contemporary writers, P. D. James, in particular, presents a complex portrait of the city as a mosaic in her detective stories and her novel Innocent Blood. The city in these works is an intricate picture built up out of many small pieces. But the mosaic is not only an image of the city in these works; it is also the method of a detective or mystery novel. From the point of view of the detective, it is not just a question of putting together pieces of a puzzle, because the picture has not yet been created. The detective must create it by fitting together the small pieces available. The pieces which P. D. James' detectives must use to create their picture of the city are London's "villages," all the districts of London that must be connected together to form a coherent whole.
The concept of London as a collection of villages echoes throughout P. D. James' works. In Unnatural Causes (1967), the male detective Adam Dalgleish refers to the district of Soho as "a cosmopolitan village tucked away behind Piccadilly with its own mysterious village life." In Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), a character who is a drama critic explains: "No one has all the London gossip. London, as you very well know, is a collection of villages, socially, occupationally, as well as geographically." In Innocent Blood (1980) Norman Scase, who is tracking the heroine, thinks of London as a place, "which asked no questions, kept its secrets, provided in its hundred urban villages the varied needs of ten million people." In her most recent work, A Taste for Death (1986), it is a female detective, Kate Miskin, who sees the mosaic of city, the linking of all the villages into an overall pattern. As she looks from the balcony of her Lansdowne Road flat, she thinks to herself:
The world stretched out below her was one she was at home in, part of that dense, exciting conglomerate of urban villages which made up the Metropolitan Police district. She pictured it stretching away over Notting Hill Gate, over Hyde Park and the curve of the river, past the towers of Westminster and Big Ben.
Kate Miskin not only sees the individual villages and landmarks, she also sees the pattern that links them:
This was how she saw the capital, patterned in police areas, districts, divisions and sub-divisions. And immediately below her lay Notting Hill, that tough, diverse, richly cosmopolitan village.
The image of the connectedness of the urban villages belongs to P. D. James' female characters, and it reflects their ability to connect to other people. Kate Miskin, unlike the traditional detective, is willing to get involved with others, and it is she who has the vision of London as a pattern, a mosaic. This is an image of London which Philippa Palfrey in Innocent Blood learns to see when she learns to connect with other people. Furthermore, it is the female characters, Kate Miskin, Philippa Palfrey and Cordelia Gray, another untraditional detective, who recognize the beauty of the city and celebrate it. There is nonetheless a hint in A Taste for Death that Adam Dalgleish, in the earlier works a typical uninvolved male detective, may start to see the beauty of the city as he gets to know Cordelia Gray.
The Tradition of the Detective Novel
The urban mystery or detective story began to appear in England in the late nineteenth century. Raymond Williams notes that it emerged as a "predominant image of the darkness and poverty of the city … became quite central in literature and social thought." If the image of the city is that of darkness, then the urban hero becomes the one who can penetrate that darkness and make sense of the city. Williams explains:
the urban detective, prefigured in a minor way in Dickens and Wilkie Collins, now begins to emerge as a significant and ratifying figure: the man who can find his way through the fog, who can penetrate the intricacies of the streets. The opaque complexity of modern city life is represented by crime; the explorer of society is reduced to the discoverer of single causes…. [Sherlock Holmes' London is]: the fog, the gaslight, the hansom cabs, the street urchins, and through them all, this eccentric sharp mind, this almost disembodied but locally furnished intelligence, which can unravel complexity,… the clear abstract system beyond all the bustle and fog.
The tradition of the detective novel clearly deals with the questions and darkness of the city, but from Williams' description, it seems to do so in a particularly masculine way: the rational abstract intelligence, elevated and separated from others, which isolates and differentiates until it identifies a single cause.
Feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun, however, finds that the British tradition of detective novels is not as strictly masculine as it first appears. She points out that British detective novels contain autonomous and well-developed female characters and sympathetic male characters. Even if Sherlock Holmes is the "quintessential male" in his excessive ratiocination, his female clients and antagonists are strong and resourceful women. Heilbrun also sees a clear difference between the violent, gory "tough-guy" tradition with limited roles for women that evolved in American detective novels and the British tradition of "effete," "charming," and "tender" male detectives: "Manliness … was left for the Watsons in the outfit. The British in their detective fiction from Holmes on, were the first, and perhaps the last, to equate manliness with stupidity." Although ratiocination remains a prominent trait in British male detective heroes, the macho quality admired in American fiction does not appear. Heilbrun links the tradition of sympathetic male detective heroes to the success of many of the women writers who took over the British detective story in the 1920s and 1930s; furthermore Heilbrun notes a "special phenomenon" in these British women mystery writers. They start out with a charming, gentlemanly male detective, but then they bring in a woman character who begins to take over whole books: Sayers' Harriet Vane, Marsh's Agatha Troy, and Christie's Miss Marple.
Heilbrun hails P. D. James as the inheritor of this tradition. After creating a successful male police detective in Adam Dalgleish, James wrote An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and created private detective Cordelia Gray, to whom she returned in Skull Beneath the Skin (1982). In A Taste for Death Cordelia Gray appears briefly, and the female police officer Kate Miskin is introduced. In 1980, Heilbrun praised James as the best detective novelist of the tradition of Sayers and They in the past two decades: "The best of P. D. James' detective novels raise the genre to new heights…. [They] preserve all the glories of the earlier detective fiction while adding a modernity of detail and setting, and a concern with contemporary problems that does more than resurrect a past genre: it both recreates and strengthens it." Furthermore, P. D. James' works portray a city as not just a place of darkness. The dark alleys and corners are there, especially in the early Adam Dalgleish novels, but Cordelia Gray and Kate Miskin see light and change in the city as well as darkness.
P. D. James' portrayal of contemporary problems reveals a woman's viewpoint, particularly in the Cordelia Gray and Kate Miskin novels and in Innocent Blood. Although P. D. James creates the traditional uninvolved, rational male detective in Adam Dalgleish, she creates female detectives in Cordelia Gray and Kate Miskin who are not only autonomous and strong, but also exhibit some of the qualities of involvement with and concern for other people that the psychologists Carol Gilligan and Jessica Benjamin particularly associate with women. P. D. James too identifies these qualities as female. In a 1977 interview James said: "I believe … that women are as intelligent as men and in many ways as able, but women have got other qualities as well. These are qualities of sympathy and of understanding (an instinctive wish to look after people who are weaker than themselves) and of less aggression. This is what the world wants!" SueEllen Campbell even thinks that the women characters cause a "generic shift" in these detective novels which, like Sayers' Gaudy Night, have a "thematic richness" that is "at least partly a response to the presence of a heroine … for whom there is no established formula." This shift created by the focus on female characters and female concerns becomes even more pronounced in P. D. James' Innocent Blood, with its young, developing heroine.
The Early Detective Novels: Adam Dalgleish and Cordelia Gray
P. D. James' awareness of the differences in qualities associated with men and women is evident in her portrayal of her male and female detectives. Adam Dalgleish is a typical British male detective: although he is a published poet, he is still analytical and non-involved whether he is observing the streets or interrogating people. Yet even in an early novel, A Mind to Murder (1963), he feels guilty about this detachment:
His job, in which he could deceive himself that non-involvement was a duty, had given him glimpses into the secret lives of men and women whom he might never see again except as half-recognized faces in a London crowd. Sometimes he despised his private image, the patient, uninvolved, uncensorious inquisitor of other people's misery and guilt. How long could you stay detached he wondered, before you lost your own soul?
In Unnatural Causes one of the suspects sums up Dalgleish's professional detachment, saying, "Doesn't being a policeman protect your privacy? You have a professional excuse for remaining uninvolved…. I think you are a man who values his privacy." Although this sense of privacy and uninvolved rationality places Dalgleish in the tradition of male detective heroes, P. D. James makes clear the cost of his non-involvement. All his personal relationships are sacrificed to this stance. In some period before the series began, he had a wife, but she and their baby died in childbirth. Another woman is in love with him, but at the end of Unnatural Causes she leaves to take a job in New York because she can "no longer bear to loiter about on the periphery of his life." P. D. James said in a recent interview with Dale Salwak that she is conscious of these qualities in Adam Dalgleish. She did not want to create a character so perfect that he would be boring: "I do have to remind myself there are things about his character which I don't admire. He's so almost completely detached at times, even a little cold, and I wouldn't have thought easy to work for at all." Only his writing poetry, like Holmes' playing the violin, shows his potential for sensitivity.
Cordelia Gray does not have to feel guilty about detachment because although she is strong and autonomous, she does allow herself to get involved. At the beginning of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, her openness to involvement almost undermines her professionalism. Cordelia Gray is faced with keeping a detective agency open all by herself after the suicide of her partner, who had cancer. Her first case, the seeming suicide of Mark Callender, takes her to Cambridge, where she almost succumbs to the undergraduates' offer of camaraderie. She had not been to the university herself; her mother died at birth, and her father, a revolutionary, took her out of convent school at sixteen so she could join him on the continent. When the Cambridge undergraduates take her for a picnic and a ride in a punt, she is almost lulled into giving up her case and agreeing that Mark Callender's death is suicide. Cordelia Gray, however, is more independent and plucky than the undergraduates, and she perseveres, enduring threats and even an attempt on her life. Finally, she does get involved after she has solved the mystery of Mark's death. When Miss Leaming, Ronald Callender's secretary, kills him upon learning that he grotesquely murdered their son, Cordelia protects the woman, not really for her own sake, but because Miss Leaming is Mark's mother and Cordelia grew to respect Mark during her investigation. She also hated Ronald Callender for desecrating Mark's body and setting Mark up as an object of contempt. Cordelia carefully helps Miss Leaming to make it look as if Sir Ronald committed suicide. She manages to stick to her story even under Adam Dalgleish's questioning, although she knows he suspects the truth. In spite of the supposed detachment required of a detective, Cordelia is not afraid of sympathy for and involvement with people. She was genuinely fond of her partner, Bernie Pryde, and at the end of her questioning by Dalgleish, she bursts into tears, partly of relief, but mostly for Bernie, whom Adam had fired even though Bernie idealized him. She lashes out at Adam, "after you'd sacked him, you never enquired how he got on. You didn't even come to the funeral."
In both An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin, it is Cordelia, with her acceptance of involvement and connection, who walks around London. Even though both novels in which she appears are set primarily outside London, they both open with Cordelia walking down Kingly Street, just past Oxford Circus, to her office. She has kept Pryde's detective agency solvent by taking cases searching for lost cats and dogs. She has even trained her inefficient elderly secretary, Miss Maudsley, to help look for cats: Miss Maudsley "managed to conquer her timidity when in pursuit of cat thieves and on Saturday mornings walked purposely through the rowdy exuberance and half-submerged terrors of London's street markets as if under divine protection, which no doubt she felt herself to be." Also in Skull Beneath the Skin she gets involved even at risk of her own life by trying to save the young murderer, who is terrified into trying to drown himself. In response to the monstrous selfishness of the real villain, Ambrose Gorringe, Cordelia cries in anger, "You killed him [the young murderer], and you tried to kill me…. Not even in self-defense. Not even out of hatred. My life counted for less than your comfort, your possessions." After dealing with Ambrose, Cordelia finds it reassuring to get a call from Miss Maudsley, who urges her home to find a Siamese cat because it belongs to a girl who is just out of the hospital after a leukemia treatment. The city has room for detectives with compassion.
In P. D. James' early detective novels, her male detective, Adam Dalgleish, does not see the city as a positive place where missing cats can be found. When Dalgleish walks through Soho in Unnatural Causes, he correctly identifies it as a village, but it fills him with disgust:
It was difficult to believe that he had once enjoyed walking through this shoddy gulch…. It was largely a matter of mood, no doubt, for the district is all things to all men, catering comprehensively for those needs which money can buy. You see it as you wish. An agreeable place to dine: a cosmopolitan village tucked away behind Piccadilly with its own mysterious village life, one of the best shopping centres for food in London, the nastiest and most sordid nursery of crime in Europe…. Passing the strip clubs, the grubby basement stairs, the silhouettes of bored girls against the upstairs window blinds, Dalgleish thought that a daily walk through these ugly streets could drive any man into a monastery.
Some of the same aspects of the city are portrayed in Innocent Blood. The city is seen as reflecting an observer's mood. Although a district is vividly portrayed as a "village" within the city, here, from a male point of view, it is a grim district with no redeeming qualities. The same disgust is present in Shroud for a Nightingale, when the male Sergeant Masterson goes into London to interview an informant and ends up at a macabre dance contest at the Athenaeum Hall. The urban districts are there, but are not yet seen as part of the glittering tiles of a mosaic.
The same difference is evident in male and female observation of architectural change and renovation. Bernard Benstock, writing primarily about the Dalgleish novels, notes that almost "every important building that serves as the central stage of her tragic dramas has been converted from something else, and each is either in the process or in potential danger of being reconverted or abandoned or torn down in turn." This awareness of architectural change is especially vivid in the city where the male observers, as in Dickens, are disgusted by the change, but the female observers, as in Lessing, can delight in it. In Unnatural Causes, Adam Dalgleish goes to London to search for a suspect and walks through a mews which has just been renovated:
The cobbled entrance was uninviting, ill-lit and smelt strongly of urine. Dalgleish … passed under the archway into a wide yard lit only by a solitary and unshaded bulb over one of a double row of garages. The premises had apparently once been the headquarters of a driving school…. But they were dedicated now to a nobler purpose, the improvement of London's chronic housing shortage. More accurately, they were being converted into dark, under-sized and over-priced cottages soon, no doubt, to be advertised as "bijou town residences" to tenants or owners prepared to tolerate any expense or inconvenience for the status of a London address and the taste for contemporary chi-chi.
The darkness of the houses and the snob appeal of the district recall Dickens' description of the Barnacle house in Little Dorrit, an ill-smelling, cramped house located on the fringes of a fashionable neighborhood:
Mews Street, Grosvenor Square, was not absolutely Grosvenor Square itself, but it was very near it. It was a hideous little street of dead wall, stables, and dunghills, with lofts over coachhouses inhabited by coachmen's families, who had a passion for drying clothes and decorating their window-sills with miniature turnpikegates…. Yet there were two or three small airless houses at the entrance end of Mews Street, which went at enormous rents on account of their being abject hangers-on to a fashionable situation.
In Shroud for a Nightingale, the renovations Dalgleish encounters in North Kensington are less chic and even grimmer than those in Unnatural Causes:
Number 49 Millington Square, W.10, was a large dilapidated Italianate house fronted with crumbling stucco. There was nothing remarkable about it. It was typical of hundreds in this part of London. It was obviously divided into bed-sitting rooms since every window showed a different set of curtains, or none, and it exuded that curious atmosphere of secretive and lonely over-occupation which hung over the whole district.
In Skull Beneath the Skin, however, the renovation of Cordelia Gray's flat off Thames Street is seen in a positive light:
as she moved from the single large sitting room to her bedroom she could see spread below her the glittering streets, the dark alleyways, the towers and steeples of the city, could glimpse beyond them the necklace of light slung along the Embankment and the smooth, light-dazzled curve of the river. The view, in daylight or after dark, was a continual marvel to her, the flat itself a source of astonished delight…. No building society had been interested in a sixth-floor apartment at the top of a Victorian warehouse with no lift and the barest amenities…. But her bank manager, apparently to his surprise as much as hers, had been sympathetic and had authorized a five-year loan.
The buildings Adam Dalgleish sees throughout London have been thoughtlessly chopped up into small bedsitters or carelessly renovated with a false attempt at chic. Cordelia, who has done some of the renovation herself, is rewarded by a glorious view of London that sustains her after her sorties out into the countryside to solves murders. Although both detectives go into the city of London in the course of these early novels, it is Cordelia Gray who is portrayed as the lover of London.
Not only Cordelia but even one of the female murderers has a more positive view of the city than Adam Dalgleish. A Mind to Murder is set in London in a psychiatric clinic located in a Georgian Terrace house on an imaginary London square with a mews to the rear. Occasionally the story follows characters to their London residences, such as Nurse Bolam's flat in a narrow terraced house at 17 Rettinger Street N.W.1. The ground floor smells of "frying fat, furniture polish and stale urine," but in summer evenings she could "watch the sun setting behind a castellation of sloping roofs and twisting chimneys with, in the distance, the turrets of St. Pancras Station darkening against a flaming sky." In P. D. James' early detective novels, it is only the women, whether they be detectives or murderers, who see the beauty of London.
A Taste for Death
In James' most recent detective novel, A Taste for Death (1986), which is set entirely in London, there is some hint that Dalgleish can change. A friend mentions that Dalgleish was seen dining with Cordelia Gray; perhaps he is beginning to learn from her. In A Taste for Death, the victim is for the first time someone Dalgleish knew, however briefly, Sir Paul Berowne, a government minister, and Dalgleish worries whether he is too involved. Dalgleish is less sure of himself in this novel. He is no longer writing poetry and is somewhat "disillusioned" with police work. He asks himself: "And if I tell myself that enough is enough, twenty years of using people's weakness against them, twenty years of careful non-involvement, if I resign, what then?" This time, though, he recognizes that he is involved. After a difficult interview in which he tries to get information from the Special Branch, Dalgleish thinks:
what depressed him most and left him with a sour taste of self-disgust, was how close he had come to losing his control. He realized how important it had become to him, his reputation for coolness, detachment, uninvolvement. Well, he was involved now. Perhaps they were right. You shouldn't take on a case if you knew the victim. But how could he claim to have known Berowne … a three-hour train journey, a brief ten-minute spell in his office, an interrupted walk in St. James's Park? And yet he knew that he had never felt so great an empathy with any other victim.
In spite of feeling empathy for Berowne, Dalgleish still remains a rational man. Upon hearing a priest suggest that he thought he saw the stigmata on Berowne's hands shortly before the minister was killed, Dalgleish is shocked and even feels "revulsion" towards "the bizarre intrusion of irrationality into a job so firmly rooted in the search for evidence … demonstrable, real." When two assistants discuss Dalgleish, one says to the other, "AD likes life to be rational. Odd for a poet, but there it is." Even if Dalgleish remains rational and is depressed by his involvement, he nonetheless has a vision of London in this novel similar to those experienced by female characters in P. D. James' other novels. While an Assistant Commissioner looks into a file, Dalgleish looks out over the city of London and contrasts Manhattan, whose "spectacular soaring beauty always seemed … precarious," with the gentler panorama of his own city:
London, laid out beneath him under a low ceiling of silver-grey cloud, looked eternal, rooted, domestic. He saw the panorama, of which he never tired, in terms of painting. Sometimes it had the softness and immediacy of watercolour; sometimes, in high summer, when the park burgeoned with greenness, it had the rich texture of oil. This morning it was a steel engraving, hard-edged, grey, one-dimensional.
Here Dalgleish actually stops to observe the city below him and draws an analogy between the variety of London and styles of painting.
P. D. James introduces a new female character, Police Inspector Kate Miskin, in A Taste for Death. Kate, an illegitimate child whose mother died in childbirth, was brought up by her grandmother in a "meanly proportioned, dirty, noisy flat … of a post-war tower block" and attended a multi-racial state school, Ancroft Comprehensive. Kate has no nostalgia for her childhood. She is delighted with her new job and her flat in an old Victorian building near the corner of Lansdowne and Ladbroke Roads because it allows her to escape the past: "She had little feeling for the past; all her life had been a striving to struggle free of it." When asked why she chose police work, Kate thinks to herself: "I thought I could do the job. I was ambitious. I prefer order and hierarchy to muddle." Kate says she prefers order and hierarchy and freedom from the past, but she naturally involves herself with people, and during her first case, she comes to terms with her past. When she and Adam Dalgleish go to visit Berowne's mistress, Carole Washburn, the male detective admires Kate's feminine ease with people:
It was typical of her, thought Dalgleish, this unsentimental, practical response to people and their immediate concerns. Without hectoring or presumption, she could reduce the most embarrassing situation to something approaching normality. It was one of her strengths. Now, above the tinkle of kettle lid and crockery, he could hear their voices, conversational, almost ordinary.
Listening to them, Dalgleish suddenly feels, that they "would both get on better without his male, destructive presence."
When Carole Washburn has some information to give the police, it is Kate she asks to see. She and Kate meet in Holland Park, and she tells Kate about a letter Berowne received from a girl who committed suicide. As Kate talks to Carole about Berowne's wife, Carole bursts into tears. Kate's first impulse is to invite Carole back to her flat for coffee. Kate at first checks herself, then submits to her own feelings of sympathy:
suppose Carole were required to give evidence in court, then any suggestion of friendship, of an understanding between them could be prejudicial to the prosecution. And more than to the prosecution; it could be prejudicial to her own career. It was the kind of sentimental error of judgement which wouldn't exactly displease Massingham if he came to hear of it. And then she heard herself saying:
"My flat is very close, just across the avenue. Come and have coffee before you go."
Kate knows she should be careful not to be "sentimental" and become involved with people while investigating a case, but she does anyway. She met her lover, a theology librarian, when she went to investigate a stolen book. This time, when she sees how distraught Carole is, her sympathy for people and, as P. D. James says of women in general, her "instinctive wish to look after people who are weaker" than she is, take precedence over her "better" judgment.
In this novel Kate also comes to terms with her past in the person of her aging grandmother. Kate doesn't want her grandmother to move in with her because she cherishes her freedom and is committed to her job. Nonetheless, when her grandmother is mugged, Kate takes her in and realizes that personal relationships are even more important than her job:
Nothing is more important to me than my job. But I can't make the law the basis of my personal morality. There has to be something more if I'm to live at ease with myself. And it seemed to her that she had made a discovery about herself and about her job which was of immense importance, and she smiled that it should have happened while she was hesitating between two brands of tinned pears in a Notting Hill Gate supermarket.
Kate Miskin comes to terms with her past, and it is not surprising that someone who can come to terms with her own past and who values involvement with other people above the law can, like Maureen Duffy's characters, see the past in the city and recognize that nature is part of the city. Like Dalgleish, Kate too can see the panorama of the city; from the balcony of her flat, she looks out over London past "the great limes [lindens] lining Holland Park Avenue":
To the south the trees of Holland Park were a black curdle against the sky, and ahead the spire of St. John's church gleamed like some distant mirage…. Far below to her right under the high are lights the avenue ran due west, greasy as a molten river, bearing its unending cargo of cars, trucks and red buses. This, she knew, had once been the old Roman road leading westward straight out of Londinium; its constant grinding roar came to her only faintly like the surge of a distant sea.
Kate meets witnesses in Holland Park, and every night she looks out at the lime trees and the plane trees that line the great rivers of avenues. She learns to deal with her own past, and she can connect London and Londinium. She can see the mosaic of the city.
P. D. James' most vivid portrayal of London is not in one of her detective novels, although A Taste for Death comes close, but in Innocent Blood (1980). Several reviewers call Innocent Blood a "straight" novel, but Nancy Joyner points out that it still includes many elements of the traditional mystery form: two violent deaths described in detail; two amateur detectives, Philippa Palfrey and Norman Scase; clues that lead up to a final revelation, and the London setting. It is in this novel, as Philippa Palfrey tries to put together the pieces of her past to find her identity, that London and its many districts and neighborhoods are presented in great detail and that the image of London as mosaic emerges most strongly. It is particularly important because it is reflected in the novel's detective structures as well as its theme.
Philippa Palfrey is younger than the protagonists of Lessing's, Drabble's, and Murdoch's novels and her task is the establishment of identity and the development of the ability to love. Unlike most teenagers, who break with their past or at least strain against it to find their identity, she is an adopted child who must discover her past and connect with it. Philippa is like Cordelia Gray and Kate Miskin in being intelligent and independent, but unlike them she has not yet learned to be concerned for others. Although she has achieved for her adoptive parents, she has no real love for them nor does she think they really love her. Maurice Palfrey, and his second wife Hilda, had adopted Philippa after Maurice's first wife and son were killed in an automobile accident. Philippa has almost no memory of her first eight years before she was adopted. Her fantasy, aided by Hilda, has been that she is the daughter of a lord and his serving maid because she has a memory of the rose garden and the library of Pennington, a country manor house. Now she must let her fantasies evaporate and slowly, piece by piece, build up her real past. She does this by moving around London, where each district is like a small village or piece of mosaic tile that, put together, is the larger reality of London.
The city cannot create an identity for Philippa; like the small glittering tiles of a mosaic or the mirrors that Philippa and Norman Scase look into, the city can only reflect back what is before it. When Philippa goes out to find an apartment for herself and her natural mother, she sees the city as a mirror for the observer's mood:
She came to know a different London and she saw it through different eyes. The city was all things to all men. It reflected and deepened mood; it did not create it. Here the miserable were more miserable, the lonely more bereft, while the prosperous and happy saw reflected in her river and glittering life the confirmation of their deserved success.
Ultimately the city can only reflect, but that quality offers Philippa two things, a reminder of physical reality and the freedom of anonymity. When Philippa first discovers her parents' names, she takes the train from Liverpool Station out "through the urban sprawl of the eastern suburbs; rows of drab houses with blackened bricks and patched roofs." The train passed "wastelands rank with weeds" and finally arrived at Seven Kings Station near Bancroft Gardens where her parents lived. There in the "leafy privacy and cosy domesticity" of Church Lane with its "identical semidetached houses … architecturally undistinguished, but at least … on a human scale," she learns from neighbors that Martin and Mary Ducton were the rapist and murderess of twelve-year-old Julie Scase, and that her father died in prison. Her earlier fantasy about her past bursts like an iridescent soap bubble and she feels faint and sick.
Philippa regains her sense of self by concentrating on a piece of shiny paving stone that evokes the image of a mosaic tile: "she opened her eyes and made herself concentrate on the things she could touch and feel. She ran her fingers over the roughness of the wall." After Philippa grounds herself in reality by feeling the texture of the wall, she is able to see the paving stone:
It was pricked with light, set with infinitesimal specks, bright as diamonds. Pollen from the gardens had blown over it and there was a single flattened rose petal like a drop of blood. How extraordinary that a paving stone should be so varied, should reveal under the intensity of her gaze such gleaming wonders. These things at least were real, and she was real—more vulnerable, less durable than bricks and stones, but still present, visible, an identity.
Physical reality isn't much of an identity; Philippa has much to learn, including the meaning of the rose petal, red as blood, but at least she starts with one piece of identity, her physical existence. The paving stone glittering with bits of reflected light is itself a piece of mosaic revealing wonder and variety. It foreshadows the many villages that make up London and the pieces of the picture Philippa must put together of her past. Philippa pulls herself together enough to take the train back into London, but she spends "the rest of the day walking in the City." The city reflects her mood in the grey rainy sky, and even the "pavement stones were as tacky as if … [rain] had fallen heavily all day, and a few shallow puddles had collected in the gutter into which occasional dollops dropped with heavy portentousness from a sky as thick and gray as curdled milk." This time the paving stones reflect no gleam of light. Philippa will have to discover that on her own.
The city also offers Philippa the freedom and anonymity in which to get to know her natural mother, Mary Ducton, whom she brings to London after her mother's release from prison. By moving out of her adopted parents' house and renting a flat in another district, Philippa achieves anonymity for herself and her mother. They glory in it as Martha Quest did in The Four-Gated City:
Their freedom did, indeed, seem to be limitless, stretching out in concentric waves from those three small rooms above Monty's Fruit and Veg to embrace the whole of London. The freedom of the city—of the lumpy grass under the elms of St. James's Park, where they would search for a spare length of grass … and lie on their backs, staring up through a dazzle of shivering green and silver and listening to the midday band concert.
The city offers Philippa and her mother the anonymity of the crowd, but it does not offer escape from their own past. As Hilary Burde discovered in Iris Murdoch's A Word Child, the past can find them in the city even if they come to the city to try to escape it. Norman Scase recognizes the opportunity that London offers but he, in his vow to avenge the death of his daughter, represents the past that haunts Mary Ducton. Norman Scase loses Philippa and Mary Ducton when they first get off the train from the prison in York, but he knows he can find them in spite of the city's anonymity:
He didn't believe for one moment they were in the country. It was in the vast anonymity of the capital that the hunted felt most secure. London, which asked no questions, kept its secrets, provided in its hundred urban villages the varied needs of ten million people. And the girl was no provincial. Only a Londoner would have stridden with such confidence through the complexities of King's Cross Underground Station.
London may be secretive, but Norman Scase has a map, and like a good detective he can fit the pieces of a puzzle together and discover which urban village Philippa has chosen.
These villages, or districts, are described in even greater detail in Innocent Blood then in P. D. James' other novels. When Maurice Palfrey, Philippa's adoptive father, thinks back to his first wife and their selection of a house, he remembers that they tried to decide which district had the character they wanted: "All districts of London were apparently impossible for her. Hampstead was too trendy, Mayfair too expensive, Bayswater vulgar, Belgravia too smart." Finally they find Caldecote Terrace in Pimlico. After the death of his first wife and her son Orlando, Maurice marries his dowdy secretary Hilda, not really because he loves her, but because she weeps for Orlando. Hilda is not a society woman like his first wife; she prefers to keep house and cook. Pimlico becomes Hilda's village, and when Norman Scase loses Philippa and Mary Ducton on the subway, he finds the Palfreys' address, Caldecote Terrace, which "lay on the fringes of Pimlico, southeast of Victoria and Ecclestone Bridge." When Norman goes there he discovers "a cul-de-sac of converted but unspoiled late eighteenth-century terraced houses which lay off the wider and busier Caldecote Road." Although he feels "like an interloper entering a private precinct of orderliness, culture, and comfortable prosperity," he is on his mission as a detective and has trained himself to observe carefully. At first he imagines what the district is like:
They would, he imagined, affect to despise the smartness of Belgravia; would enthuse about the advantages of a socially mixed society, even if the mixing didn't actually extend to sending their children to local schools; would patronize as a duty the small shopkeepers in Caldecote Road.
He soon gives up his reverie and starts to observe the area carefully:
The street had an impressive uniformity; the houses were identical except for variations in the patterns of the fanlights and in the wrought-iron tracery of the first-floor balconies. The front railings guarding the basements were spiked and ornamented at the ends with pineapples. The doors, flanked with columns, were thoroughly intimidating; the brass letter boxes and knockers gleamed.
Kevin Lynch notes in The Image of the City that a "city district in its simplest sense is an area of homogeneous character, recognized by clues which are continuous throughout the district…. The homogeneity may be of spatial characteristics … of building type … of style or of topography. It may be a typical building feature…. Where physical homogeneity coincides with use and status, the effect is unmistakable. In Pimlico, as P. D. James describes it, the eighteenth-century terraced houses have an "impressive uniformity," varying only in the shapes of fanlights and the patterns of wrought-iron tracery. Although Maurice Palfrey is the professional sociologist, Norman Scase's intent focus on detection and eye for details give him accurate "preconceptions" of the upper-middle-class liberal inhabitants of this district. The physical boundaries of the district are reinforced by its visual characteristics, and together they clearly delineate the "urban village."
Pimlico is a well-defined district with clearly differentiated public and private paths. Norman Scase knows that he cannot watch the Palfreys' house from Caldecote Terrace because he would be noticed. In Caldecote Road, the public area, however, he is safe:
The road was in marked contrast to the terrace, a disorderly muddle of shops, cafes, pubs, and the occasional office, typical of an inner London commercial street from which any glory had long departed. It was a bus route, and small, disconsolate groups of shoppers, laden with their baskets and trolleys, waited at the stops…. Here, if not in Caldecote Terrace, he could loiter in safety.
Although Norman at first mistakes the plain, unassuming Hilda for a maid, he finally identifies her and trails her, hoping for a lead to Philippa:
Pimlico was her [Hilda's] village, and it became his, bounded by Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, two flowing thoroughfares like unnavigable rivers over which she never ventured to pass.
Pimlico's clearly marked public and private paths and the unmistakable boundaries of the two thoroughfares define the district. Within it are not only housing and shopping facilities but even recreational areas. It has its own park, Embankment Gardens, with a view of the Thames. Hilda goes there to eat lunch on summer days and to lean on the parapet, staring "at the gritty fringes of the Thames, plumed with gulls, at the great barges as they grunted upstream, slapping the tide against the embankment wall." The Thames functions not only as an edge for the district, but also as a link with the rest of London, as the barges go upstream. In spite of the specific boundaries, Hilda is content to stay within the confines of Pimlico because she already knows other parts of London; she grew up as the only child of working-class parents "in a small terraced house in the poorer part of Ruislip." Philippa, however, feels that Pimlico is part of the "charade" of a fabricated past. She thinks her reflection in the mirror of her room in Caldecote Terrace is inaccurate and unreal. She "had half expected the image to fudge and quiver like a reflection seen in a distorting mirror." The district of Pimlico alone, no matter how well defined in and of itself, cannot reflect back to Philippa a complete identity. To get that she must go out into the city of London and get to know other districts.
To discover her past, Philippa needs to see the other districts of London anew. As she looks for her own apartment in the city, she gains a new perspective:
Once, from the security of Caldecote Terrace she would have seen the meaner streets of north Paddington, Kilburn, and Earls Court as fascinating outposts of an alien culture, part of the variety and color of any capital city.
Now with disenchanted and prejudiced eyes she saw only fifth and deformity; the bursting bags of uncollected rubbish, the litter which choked the gutters … the walls defaced by the scribbled hate of extremists of the left and right.
Philippa also feels uncomfortable with the people of the district:
The alien shrouded bodies crouching on the curbside, watching from the open doors, threatened her with their strangeness; the prevailing smells of curry, of herded bodies, of scented women's hair, emphasized the sense of exclusion, of being unwanted in her own city.
Philippa learns to accept strangeness and finally even to be concerned for others when she moves into her apartment on Delaney Street with her mother.
P. D. James describes Delaney Street as being "at the Lisson Grove end of Mell Street" near Praed Street and Edgware Road, but Delaney Street is a made-up name, as are Mell Street and Caldecote Terrace. Although P. D. James uses real main streets like Praed Street and Edgware Road, Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, she often makes up street names for residences in her novels. Frequently these names are very close to real street names. For instance, there is a Caldecot Road (without the final e) in another part of London. There is no Delaney Street, but there is a Delancey Street. Mell Street, as Nancy Joyner notes, is "clearly modelled on London's Bell Street." In A Taste for Death, the most urban of all her traditional detective novels, James adds an author's note when she uses real street names for residences: "My apologies are due to the inhabitants of Camden Hill Square for my temerity in erecting a Sir John Soane house to disrupt the symmetry of their terraces and to the Diocese of London for providing, surplus to pastoral requirements, a Sir Arthur Blomfield basilica and its campanile on the banks of the Grand Union Canal."
Delaney Street first gives Philippa the anonymity that she needs to put together her past. Safe in her newfound anonymity, she can get to know the district. Delaney Street becomes her new "village":
the core of their joint life lay in Delaney Street and Mell Street. Philippa told herself that she couldn't have found a better part of London in which to be anonymous. The district had a life of its own, but it was one in which the sense of community was fostered by seeing the same familiar faces, not by inquiring into their business. Delaney Street was a quiet cul-de-sac inhabited chiefly by the middle-aged or elderly living above their small family shops. It had something of the atmosphere of a self-sufficient, ancient, and sleepy village, a sluggish backwater between the great surging rivers of the Marylebone Road and the Edgware Road.
Like Pimlico, Delaney Street has clearly defined boundaries and identifiable, homogeneous physical features. It fits Jane Jacobs' definition of an ideal city neighborhood in that it offers privacy and yet some degree of community and contact. Philippa and her mother have the anonymity they need. Although they deliberately do not drink at their local pub, the Blind Beggar, in order to maintain their privacy, still "they felt accepted in the street." No longer "unwanted in her own city," Philippa can relax and begin to learn from the district.
Philippa begins to celebrate the variety and festive quality of the district as she and her mother go out into the crowds of Mell Street on marketing day:
It was a small, intimate, bustling market, cosmopolitan but at the same time very English…. Early in the morning the seller of second-hand rugs and carpets wheeled up his great wooden barrow and patterned the road with his wares…. The tarmac itself became festive. Later the market took on something of the atmosphere of an eastern souk when the brass seller arrived to set out his jangling pots, and a Pakistani who sold cheap jewelry hung across his stall a swinging curtain of wooden beads.
The shops also set the tone of the district:
Behind the stalls were the small shops: the old—fashioned draper where one could still buy woolen combinations and sleeved vests … the Greek delicatessen smelling of syrup and sharp Mediterranean wine; the small general store, clean, sweet-smelling, perpetually dark … the half-dozen junk shops.
No longer does Philippa feel threatened by strangeness and difference. She can perceive the festivity of market day and enjoy the variety of shops and people.
Having come to know the "village" of Delaney Street, Philippa can branch out to get to know some of the people of various classes that make up the city. Previously she knew only her private school friends and her adoptive father's academically and socially distinguished acquaintances. Now Philippa learns to get along with some lower-class women when she and her mother take jobs as waitresses at Sid's Place, a fish-and-chip shop off Kilburn High Road. There they share waiting on tables and washing up with Black Shirl, who knifed her mother when she was twelve; with Marlene, who has bright orange spiked hair and tattoos on her arm; and with waif-like, pale Debbie. When Debbie holds a knife to Marlene's throat, Philippa is not as calm as her mother, who, "undisturbed, by the irrational explosions of violence," merely persuades the girl to give her the knife. The incident makes Philippa, however, aware of the economic injustice of the city:
Two vivid and contrasting mental pictures came frequently into her mind: Gabriel calling for her … swinging himself out of his Lagonda, running up the steps of number 68, his cashmere sweater slung from his shoulders; Black Shirl humping to a corner of the kitchen the great bag of washing for her five children which she would wheel in a pram to the launderette on her way home. Perhaps Maurice's [Palfrey, her adoptive father] mind was patterned with equally vivid images, contrasts which had made him a Socialist.
Philippa has still not developed as much of a concern for others as her mother, who feels guilty that she and Philippa talk about the three women "as if they're objects, interesting specimens." Philippa says that it doesn't matter as long as they do not know, but Mary Ducton replies, "Perhaps not to them. It might to us." Philippa still regards others objectively, from the outside, filing people away in her subconscious to use someday when she becomes a writer, but at least as she gets to know a greater variety of people, she becomes more aware of economic injustice. She starts to connect Pimlico and Delaney Street.
It is the connection of districts that for Lynch makes a mosaic of the city. When "regions are close enough together and sufficiently well joined … [they] make a continuous mosaic of distinctive districts." Lynch explains that the districts can be connected in different ways: "District may join to district, by juxtaposition, intervisibility, relation to a line, or by some link such as a mediating node." In Innocent Blood the links that connect the "villages" and make them into a city are not only in the mind of Philippa, but also physically present in the forms of the underground and the trains, which function as the mediating nodes. Lynch defines a node as a place of "junction" and "convergence of paths." The underground and the trains represent "junction" not only in themselves, but as they connect the various districts. It is also by means of the underground that the various characters connect with each other. All the characters use the trains and the underground; there are numerous references to Liverpool Street Station, King's Cross Station, Piccadilly Circus, and the stops on the Circle Line. Even though both the "villages," Pimlico and Delaney Street, have strong boundaries in the heavily-traveled thoroughfares, these boundaries can be crossed. They function as "seams" rather than as "barriers," to use Lynch's terms, and the districts are connected into a mosaic. It is via the underground that Norman Scase first tracks Hilda and then Philippa and her mother. Although Pimlico is Hilda's "village," she leaves it once a fortnight to serve as a juvenile magistrate, a job she takes to please Maurice. Norman Scase trails her from Victoria Station, to her change at Oxford Circus to the Bakerloo line, and out at Marylebone Station. It is on this trip that Hilda leads him to nearby Delaney Street, where she stops on her way home. Once Norman Scase has found Philippa and her mother, it "was simple enough to trail them on the underground. They usually went from Marylebone, the nearest station." If Norman Scase doesn't know districts, he doesn't worry. The underground and his map of London connect the city for him: "On his larger map he traced the route of the Circle line. Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Bayswater, Kensington. The districts were unfamiliar to him, but he would get to know them." Norman's approach to the city differs from Philippa's. Although an observant detective and able to use the connecting underground system, he still needs his map to get to know the city. She, however, goes into the districts of the city, lives there, and comes to understand the people of the city. Her ability to connect becomes more powerful than that of the purely rational detective because it eventually becomes an ability to connect emotionally and value other people. She is the one who will see the mosaic.
Philippa is comfortable riding the underground, and she begins to think about connection between districts and economic policies, but before she can connect fully and learn to love others, she must come to terms with her past. At first she thinks she can get rid of the past that is merely a blur in her memory. After Philippa and her mother first get to London, she takes her mother to Knightsbridge to buy some expensive new clothes. Then they pack up everything that her mother had brought with her from prison into an old battered case and throw it into the Grand Union Canal. As the case submerges under the "greasy surface" of the canal.
Philippa felt an almost physical relief, as if she had flung away something of herself, of her past—not the past which she knew and recognized, but the formless weight of unremembered years, of childhood miseries which were not less acute because they lurked beyond the frontier of memory. They were gone now, gone forever, sinking slowly into the mud.
In her relationship with her mother, Philippa tells herself that "L. P. Hartley was right; the past was another country and they could choose whether to visit there." Philippa, who often thinks in literary allusions, is comfortable with an intellectual past, but not a personal and emotional one. When she thinks back to life with the Palfreys, and Maurice bringing her morning tea, an allusion flits through her mind, slightly misquoted from Marlowe's Jew of Malta: "But that was in another country and, besides, that wench was dead." The "wench" that she was with Maurice and Hilda Palfrey, however, is no more dead than the first eight years of her life with her mother. The only "wench" who is dead is Julie Scase, and even she lives on in her father's determination for revenge.
Philippa also attempts to ignore the past when she watches TV. On their days off from Sid's fish-and-chip shop, Philippa and her mother watch a family drama, and Philippa thinks that the "convenient ability to live for the moment with its subliminal message that the past could literally be put behind one had much to recommend it." But even that innocuous TV show intersects with the past when they turn on the TV early and see Maurice Palfrey, supposedly an atheist, debate with a bishop. As they listen to the show. Mary Ducton reveals that she understands both her past and the nature of belief. She observes of Maurice: "Your father knows and hates what he knows. I believe, but I can't love anymore. He and I are the unlucky ones." Mary Ducton explains that she cannot love because she has to feel contrition for the murder of Julie Scase in order to receive God's forgiveness, but contrition is now impossible because she has spent her time in prison convincing herself that she wasn't responsible. The crying child reminded her of her little brother who was often beaten by their father; she had to quiet it lest more beatings occur. She says to Philippa:
I can't spend ten years explaining to myself that I wasn't responsible, that I couldn't have prevented myself doing what I did, and then when I'm free … decide that it would be pleasant to have God's forgiveness as well.
Mary Ducton understands that she must accept the past. This conversation leads to Philippa's questions about baptism, and she learns that she was christened "Rose."
Behind the name "Rose" and Philippa's relationship to it lie a series of references to roses throughout the novel. They all relate to the idea of human connection and compassion. As the novel opens, Philippa looks at a bowl of roses in the social worker's office, not "scentless, thornless … florist's" roses, but garden roses. Philippa thinks of her fantasy of a lord and maid meeting in the rose garden at Pennington. The social worker urges that Philippa trace her father through an intermediary, warning: "We all need our fantasies in order to live. Sometimes relinquishing them can be extraordinarily painful, not a rebirth into something exciting and new, but a kind of death." Relinquishing her fantasies will lead to a death for Philippa, not her own, but her mother's. Still Philippa will learn from relinquishing her fantasies even though the social worker's warning exhibited valid human concern and compassion. Other roses occur throughout the novel. There are small pink rosebuds on the curtain surrounding the hospital deathbed of Norman Scase's wife. Norman Scase does not really love his wife anymore; she had given up everything to grief and a desire for revenge, but he does sit at her deathbed and hold her hand. The punk waitress Marlene has a tattoo of hearts and roses on her arm. When Hilda, sitting on the juvenile magistrate's bench, looks down at a young girl whose baby has been taken from her for fear she or her husband beat the child, she notices a metal brooch in the shape of a rose dragging on the young mother's flimsy cotton top: "She yearned to lean over the bench and stretch out her hands to the girl, to get out from her seat and fold the rigid body in her arms." And it is when he sees Hilda clumsily trying to arrange a bowl of roses that Maurice Palfrey blurts out that he is the one who is infertile, not she: "Because of a bowl of ruined roses, because of a moment of futile compassion, he had blurted it out. Not the whole truth … but a part of the truth, the essential truth. A secret he had kept for twelve years." Although such compassion seems futile to Maurice, it lifts a burden from Hilda and makes her realize that she "needn't spend her life making up to him for a deprivation which was nothing to do with her." She can resign from the juvenile magistrate bench where she cannot help anyone; she can fulfill her long-held wish for a dog. Reacting against the fragility and messiness of real roses, Maurice decides suddenly that he doesn't like them anymore:
They were an overpraised flower, soon blowzy, their beauty dependent on scent and poetic association. One perfect bloom in a specimen vase placed against a plain wall could be a marvel of color and form, but flowers ought to be judged by how they grew. A rose garden always looked messy, spiky, recalcitrant bushes bearing mean leaves. And the roses grew untidily, had such a brief moment of beauty before the petals bleached and peeled in the wind, littering the soil.
Richard Gidez points out that Maurice and Hilda are really talking about Philippa in their comments on roses. Maurice had thought that he could take Philippa out of the messy, spiky garden of ordinary life and rear her as a perfect specimen, but now Philippa has gone back to ordinary life. Suddenly it occurs to Maurice that the roses parallel the human condition. People, like roses, cannot be judged in isolation, but rather must be perceived as growing in a garden. The messiness, the thorns, the briefness of the beauty, and the disintegration are all a part of the real human condition.
This cluster of images is tied to the city and to the central action of the novel when Philippa, who is with her mother, sees Norman Scase on an outing in Regent's Park with the blind clerk from his hotel, Violet Tetley. All the roses are in bloom: "In Queen Mary's rose garden the roses, plumped by the rain, held the last drops between delicate streaked petals: pink Harriny, bright yellow Summer Sunshine, Ena Harkness, and Peace." For Philippa, Queen Mary's Rose Garden brings back memories:
There was one rose garden which she could remember, but that had been at Pennington and her imagined father had been there…. Odd that so clear a memory, scent, warmth, and mellow afternoon light, recalled with such peculiar intensity, almost with pain, should be nothing but a childish fantasy. But this garden, this park were real enough, and Maurice was right about architecture. Nature needed the contrast, the discipline of brick and stone. The colonnades and pediments of John Nash's terraces, the eccentric outline of the zoo, even the technical phallus of the Post Office Tower soaring above the hedges, contributed to the park's beauty, defined it, and set its limits.
Nature and the rose garden are not some idyllic place away from human life and the city, but rather need the city, and not only the old colonnades, but even the new Post Office Tower. Philippa, thinking back to Maurice, connects the city and the rose garden. Like the architectural critics Jacobs and Lynch, James presents nature and the city not as contrasting elements, but as parts of a coherent whole. Even when Norman Scase climbs out the lavatory window of the pub into the "wasteland" of junk and backyards on Delaney Street, there are flowers on the waist-high weeds: "They looked so fragile with their small, pink flowers, yet they had forced their way through this impacted earth, in places splitting the concrete." Plane trees (sycamores) grow all over London, not only in Bancroft Gardens and Caldecote Terrace, but even in Delaney Street. Backyards have beautiful weeds and plane trees and the city has public rose gardens. It is in the rose garden that Philippa unwittingly makes contact with her mother's past as she smiles at Norman Scase and Violet Tetly.
Philippa had thought that she could ignore her own past life as Rose Ducton, and even as Philippa Rose Palfrey, but she cannot. Mary Ducton's past intersects with Philippa Palfrey's when they meet Gabriel Lomas at an exhibit of Victorian paintings at the Royal Academy. With some underhanded lies to Hilda, Gabriel learns of Philippa and Mary Ducton's apartment and sends a reporter there. Philippa manages to intimidate the reporter, but she and her mother decide to leave London for the Isle of Wight. Philippa even suggests that her mother change her name. Mary Ducton replies, "I couldn't do that. That would be defeat. I have to know who I am." Although Mary Ducton wants to avoid contaminating Philippa's past with her own. she does not deny her past. Philippa decides to take some of Maurice's antique silver and pawn it to finance their trip. It is at this moment that Mary Ducton for the first time calls Philippa by the name Rose: "Suddenly her mother called her back. She said, 'Rose! You won't take anything that isn't yours?'"
When Philippa arrives at Caldecote Terrace, she finds Maurice in bed with one of his graduate students. After the graduate student is dismissed, Maurice and Philippa talk, feeling an intensity between them. Philippa says that she will give up going to Cambridge and just live with her mother. Maurice finally says to her, "it's time you stopped living in a fantasy world and faced reality." He reveals the significance of her name, Rose Ducton. He points out that Philippa assumed that she was adopted after the murder, but in fact she was adopted before the murder because her mother had abused her. Her mother had been unable to stand the screaming, unloving child who had inherited her violent temper. Her mother herself had put Philippa in a foster home, and both her natural parents consented to her adoption. Philippa goes back to Delaney Street in a daze and confronts her mother angrily. Mary Ducton finally asks, "Is what I did to you so much more difficult to forgive than what I did to that child?" Philippa responds, "I don't want to see you ever again. I wish they'd hanged you nine years ago. I wish you were dead," and she flees out of the apartment into the city streets.
As Philippa runs through the city, experiencing the death of the last of her fantasies, the city reflects her anguish. Earlier, Maurice says to her that if his adoption order "lacks the emotional charge of the blood tie, hasn't your family had enough of blood?" Being Rose Ducton had meant abuse from the mother who had fractured her skull and drawn her blood. The city reflects her mood: "The city was streaked with light, bleeding with light. The head lamps of the cars dazzled on the road and the crimson pools of the traffic lights lay on the surface like blood. The rain was falling in a solid wall of water." Philippa runs away from the Warwick Avenue Underground station, along a "wide road, lined with Italianate houses and stuccoed villas," to the Grand Union Canal and there takes off the sweater her mother just knit her and throws it into the canal, trying one last time to jettison her past. She walks until she is completely exhausted and looks for a place to rest when suddenly a gang of youths start to chase her. She only barely escapes by ducking behind a gate and going into a "dark, evil-smelling area, almost colliding with three battered dustbins." As she sits in this cramped, stinking space,
[t]here came to her in the darkness no blinding revelation, no healing of the spirit, only a measure of painful self-knowledge. From the moment of her counseling she had thought of no one but herself. Not of Hilda, who had so little to give but asked so little in return and needed that little so much…. Not of Maurice, as arrogant and self-deceiving as herself, but who had done his best for her, had given with generosity even if he couldn't give with love, had somehow found the kindness to shield her from the worst knowledge. Not of her mother.
The thought of her mother makes Rose aware of her true feelings:
She knew, too, that what bound her to her mother was stronger than hate or disappointment or the pain of rejection. Surely this need to see her again, to be comforted by her, was the beginning of love; and how could she have expected that there could be love without pain?
Sitting in the alleyway, Philippa at last, though painfully, learns to accept her past and think of others. The city reflects her pain: "In her mind the city seemed to stretch forever, a silent half-derelict immensity, palely illumined by the recurrent moon. It was a dead city, plague-ridden and abandoned, from which all life had fled except for that band of scavenging louts." Just then the city reveals that it is not dead and abandoned; across the street she sees an elegant young woman in an evening dress. Philippa crosses over to her to ask directions. She tells Philippa that she is in Moxford Square and explains to her how to get home. Philippa hurries home to Delaney Street, which was "sleeping as quietly as a village street … [while the] rain-washed air smelled of the sea" to tell her mother that she loves her. But she is too late for her mother; Mary Ducton has already committed suicide. Philippa can still save Norman Scase, however, who has crept into the apartment and stuck his knife into the corpse. Philippa finds Norman sitting there, saying over and over to himself, "she won't bleed." Although Philippa reads the note from her mother which says "I can die happy because you are alive and I love You," she does not spend her time on the dead. She turns to Norman saying, "[the] dead don't bleed. I got to her before you." Philippa acknowledges her past and her deed, then forgets her focus on self and exhibits concern for others by helping Norman escape. She holds his head as he vomits into the sink, dismisses him, and puts her fingerprints on the knife.
After saving Norman, she calls Maurice, realizing that she too needs human connection and help. Maurice, for whom all the graduate students had been only a substitute for Philippa, arrives quickly and embraces her with "a clasp of possession, not a gesture of comfort." He takes care of the details with the police, takes her home to Caldecote Terrace, and tucks her into her own bed. Philippa learned to love her natural mother; she also needs to come to terms with her relationship to her adopted father. At the beginning of the novel, Philippa thinks she is searching for her real father whom she supposes is an earl at Pennington. She learns early that her natural father is dead and later that he was a weak man unable to protect her from her mother. After her mother's death, Philippa turns to Maurice, her adoptive father. All through the novel, even when with her mother, Philippa thinks of Maurice. She remembers how he taught her to appreciate good wine; she quotes to herself his opinion on architecture and buildings; she thinks about why he became a socialist; and she even recalls how he used to bring her tea in the mornings. When she goes back to Caldecote Terrace and finds him in bed with his student, Philippa wants to hear him say that he has missed her, but he doesn't say it. After he tells her how her real mother had abused her, she angrily asks him what motive he had for adopting her. Maurice finally responds, "Perhaps what I hoped for was love." As he thinks back to when he first saw Philippa, he reveals that her memory of the rose garden at Pennington was real, but that it was not an earl or any natural father whom she met there as a child, but Maurice.
In the epilogue Philippa reveals that she has a new relationship with Maurice. At Cambridge, she meets Norman Scase as she comes out of church. She reassures him that she will not reveal his past to his new wife, the blind Violet Tetley, but what she does not say echoes in her mind, "I used my mother to avenge myself on my adoptive father." Those feelings, however, are forgiven as Philippa and her father re-establish their relationship. Philippa explains to Norman:
"My adoptive father arranged everything; he's a great fixer. Afterward he took me on a long holiday to Italy. We went to see the mosaics at Ravenna."
She didn't add, "And in Ravenna I went to bed with him."… What, she wondered, had it meant exactly, that gentle, tender, surprisingly uncomplicated coupling; an affirmation, a curiosity satisfied, a test successfully passed, an obstacle ceremoniously moved out of the way so that they could again take up their roles of father and daughter, the excitement of incest without its legal prohibition, without any more guilt than they already carried? That single night together … had been necessary, inevitable, but it was no longer important.
Having accepted her past, gotten to know her mother, and reestablished connection with Maurice, Philippa has put together the mosaic of her past. Watching Norman Scase go down the path, Philippa hopes that in marrying the blind Violet Tetley, "he would find his patch of rose garden…. If it is only through learning to love that we find identity, then he had found his. She hoped one day to find hers. She wished him well. And perhaps to be able to wish him well with all that she could recognize of her unpracticed heart, to say a short, untutored prayer for him and his Violet, was in itself a small accession of grace." Philippa now understands the meaning of her name, "Rose," although she doesn't use it because it "didn't suit" her. She does not think she has completely learned to love yet, but she recognizes what it is and values the grace that allows her a prayer for Norman's happiness.
The references to the mosaics at Ravenna bring to an end a pattern that has run throughout the novel. Wherever mosaics or similar images have appeared, they have been associated with churches and with characters who have learned how to love. Hilda goes to Westminster Cathedral, passing through Lady Chapel, "gleaming with gold mosaics"; Mary Ducton's request to go to church raises in Philippa's mind images of London churches including "Margaret Street, in a dazzle of mosaics, gilded saints, and stained glass." Philippa discusses several times the possibility of going to Ravenna to see the mosaics, but she only goes after she has learned to love her mother and to reconnect with Maurice. The mosaics stand for the value of human connection, given only perhaps by grace as their association with the churches implies. They are like Philippa's closing spontaneous prayer for Norman Scase. As Philippa's peace of mind and awareness of grace illustrate, she has been able to put together the pieces of her life. It is a similar knowledge that has allowed her to put together the mosaic of the city and see the connections that link the urban villages.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
SOURCE: "Hanging Out With Higgins," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 23, December 7, 1989, pp. 18-9.
[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that James's Devices and Desires "is a thriller and a detective novel."]
P. D. James's new novel[, Devices and Desires,] seems to return us straight to Auden's theology [as set out is his essay 'The Guilty Vicarage' in which he asserts that thrillers are more serious than detective fiction]. It is set in rural East Anglia, and takes its title from the Anglican prayer book: 'We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.' A psychopath called the Whistler is on the loose, killing young women. Then the haughty and handsome female administrator of a nuclear power station is murdered. Has the Whistler struck again, or has he found a disciple? Suspects include several scientists at the power station, a retired schoolmistress, a writer of cookery books, a protester against the use of nuclear energy, a secretary who has secretly joined an international terrorist organisation, and, marginally, Adam Dalgliesh, James's poet-detective, who has just inherited an old mill in the area, and is awkwardly close to several of these people. The book ends in a brilliant train of misdeductions and evasions, and an explicit contrast with the work of H. R. F. Keating, standing in perhaps for all detective fiction of the old school, where 'problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated, and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter'. This book itself of course belongs to the old school, and does solve its central mystery at last: but it also signals with unusual clarity what the school is up to.
Dalgliesh, reflecting on his work, is also, necessarily, musing on the sort of fiction he is in: 'Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection dignified the individual death … mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives man's perennial fascination with the mystery of his mortality, providing, too, a comforting illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated, order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.' 'Excessive interest' hints at the same reservation as Macdonald's image of Los Angeles; the rest of the passage confirms Auden's diagnosis, but denies his conclusion. An escape which so thoroughly knows it is an escape is a form of realism and asks to be judged like any other form of activity. James doesn't write quite as well as is often claimed—she is too keen on ripe old prose of the 'mystic-thicket-woven-from-thin-shafts-of-light' variety—and her characters cling a little too cosily to their stereotypes: but her ability to embed searching questions in a strong and complicated narrative is really impressive.
The novel emphatically argues, for instance, that death is not 'only a mystery'. An interesting conflict is remembered, in which a policeman calls a rotting female corpse a thing and is severely rebuked by Dalgliesh:
Sergeant, the word is 'body'. Or, if you prefer, there's 'cadaver', 'corpse', 'victim', even 'deceased' … What you are looking at was a woman. She was not a thing when she was alive and she is not a thing now.
This is just, but a little preacherly, and Dalgliesh has his own later encounter with what was a person and now feels like a thing. The question, I take it, is not a matter of words but of how we feel about endings, the abrupt crossing from life into death, the sudden absence of human identity. This is not an excuse for detection: it is what stalks detection itself, the story behind the stories, the reason, one might guess, for all the whimsical titles, those would-be jaunty whistlings in the dark: Bodies in a Bookshop, or Dead on the Level, or Death on the Rocks or Murder among Friends (all of these titles are mentioned by Binyon). Devices and Desires is a thriller and a detective novel.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1203
SOURCE: "A Detective in Spite of Himself," in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1990, pp. 1, 31.
[In the following review, Crist lauds James's vivid characters, evocation of place, and risk-taking in Devices and Desires.]
Her newest mystery, Devices and Desires, is P. D. James at better than her best.
That this British writer has long transcended classification as a writer of books of mystery and detection goes without saying. That she is a first-class novelist has come clear over some 30 years and is reaffirmed by her 11th work. What "gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist," she wrote in 1983, is "the power to create [a] sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter." By hewing to this standard with literary flair and an eye as perceptive as her heart, she has established primacy in her field.
P. D. James has placed herself in the tradition of Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, but my own thought is that if Anthony Trollope or George Eliot or Miss James's own beloved Jane Austen had turned a hand to murder or mystery, she would have her heredity. She offers her readers the satisfactions of an artfully constructed, beautifully written story of flesh-and-blood individuals in a time and place we get to know as well as its inhabitants. Not, mind you, that she ignores the conventions of the mystery story: the crime, the clues, the suspects and the puzzlement are there, but so absorbing a read does she offer that final revelations seem almost a bonus. And this time out, with the revelations and resolution, Miss James has taken a risk—and taken it successfully.
Devices and Desires—the title, borrowed from the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer, was also used as a section heading in her last work, A Taste for Death (1986)—brings back Adam Dalgliesh, one of her unique creations, a detective neither accented, eccentric nor renegade, now the head of a special squad at New Scotland Yard, a renowned policemen and an acclaimed poet. But in the course of this new outing and its risky resolution, Dalgliesh is destined to feel "the frustrating involvement with a case which would never be his yet from which it was impossible to distance himself."
The hook—that Jamesian opening sentence—is there, too: "The Whistler's fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9.40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh." Thus we are introduced to the first of the "suffering men and women"—and children—who will concern us. The Whistler's purlieu is Norfolk, and four days later Dalgliesh is drawn into the story when he takes off from London for a two-week vacation on the Norfolk coast. His destination is the remote (and fictional) headland of Larksoken, where he will settle the affairs of his recently deceased Aunt Jane, his last living relative, who has left him a historic windmill and house there and £750,000.
Dalgliesh, a sensitive and compassionate observer, is initially our key to the Larksoken community, its inhabitants as varied as their scattered dwellings (which date from a restored 16th-century martyr's cottage to a tacky trailer), its skyline marked by the ruins of an abbey and dominated by the Larksoken Nuclear Power Station, its rhythms underlined by the sea and the wind and the chill of a serial killer at large.
Through Dalgliesh and on our own we encounter a fascinating mix of people: an enigmatic cooking writer and her scientist brother, who is the chief of the power station; a muddled antinuclear activist and the voluptuous young unmarried mother who shares his trailer; power-station executives and underlings with ambitions and aberrations of their own; a widow whose teaching career has been destroyed by the "fashionable orthodoxies" of race relations (must a blackboard be called a chalkboard?); an icy beauty involved with an "unprepossessing wimp"; an alcoholic painter and his four motherless children. Sibling relationships with figurative as well as literal blood ties, a variety of sexual relationships, the pros and cons of nuclear power, religion and religiosity are explored and exposed.
Dalgliesh serves too as our link to Terry Rickards, a long-ago London colleague, now head of the Norfolk homicide branch, who seeks him out as a sounding board. He is, in Dalgliesh's view, a "conscientious and incorruptible detective of limited imagination and somewhat greater intelligence," and their relationship is both territorial and prickly when the Whistler strikes again and closer to home, his fifth victim a power-station secretary. And when still another victim, a power-station administrator, is killed in what may or may not be a copycat murder, Dalgliesh, discovering the body, qualifies as both witness and suspect.
Preoccupied with the detritus of his beloved aunt's life; bemused by the childhood memories it evokes and pondering his own future as an independently wealthy man, Dalgliesh is indeed part poet. But he is in larger part policeman, a seasoned investigator who, on another's turf, can still recognize a major clue, know how to deal with intelligence operatives in two more deaths, gain insight into a power-station scientist's suicide, perform heroic physical feats in a crisis and finally make an informed "guess" at the solutions even when the cases are officially given "open verdicts."
But his is only a guess. The risk that P. D. James has taken here is in letting readers see with their own, rather than the detective's, eyes and know more than Dalgliesh, Rickards or the intelligence agents can know or learn. We and the author share the terror of an innocent running "smiling towards the horror of her death," the irony of a schemer with time only to say "I'm sorry. I'm sorry" as the end comes, the suspense of "the silent watcher waiting" for a victim, the ice of a murderer's summing up: "I did what I had to do, and it was worth it." We share a knowledge with Miss James of secrets that are kept, of virtue and principle, of hatred on the face and evil in the heart.
While it has the richness of a classical novel, this topical tale is told in a taut time framework and unfolds in the near cinematic scenes that are Miss James's style. This is why her work translates so well to film. (A Taste for Death, her fifth novel to be televised here on public television, will come to "Mystery!" in March.)
If there is a minor flaw in Devices and Desires, it is that for the whodunit fan there is small question of who in Larksoken is marked for murder, though the identity of the murderer, albeit impeccably clued for us, comes as a shocker. But, as always with P. D. James, the whodunit element is the lagniappe, so interesting are her characters, so absorbing her depiction of time and place, so rich the texture of the tale she tells. She has not failed us, and she has exceeded herself.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3946
SOURCE: "Crime and Puzzlement," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVII, No. 7, April 26, 1990, pp. 35-7.
[In the following review, Mantel complains that the detective genre is too confining for James's talent.]
February 1990: the literary editor of a British newspaper writes to The Spectator, protesting about what he sees as an elitist stranglehold on literary prizes. "Booker judges have ignored the merits of authors like William Boyd, Graham Greene, P. D. James." The reader who does not keep up with the politics of the review columns might well be puzzled. Doesn't P. D. James write best-selling detective stories? What is she doing in the company of Greene? When did the categories of fiction become so confused?
Those commentators who would elevate James's books to the status of literary novels point to her painstakingly constructed characters, her elaborate settings, her sense of place, and her love of abstractions: notions about morality and duty, pain and pleasure, are never far from the lips of her policemen, victims, and murderers. Others find her pretentious and tiresome; an inverted snobbery accuses her of abandoning the time-honored conventions of the genre in favor of fancy up-market stuff. Writing in The Spectator (October 7, 1989) Harriet Waugh wants P. D. James to get on with "the more taxing business of laying a tricky trail and then fooling the reader"; Philip Oakes in The Literary Review groans, "Could we please proceed with the business of clapping the darbies on the killer?" (October 1989). Wherever P. D. James's books are discussed there is a tendency, on the one hand, to exaggerate her merits; on the other, to punish a genre writer who is getting above herself. A feature of the debate is that familiar, false opposition between different kinds of fiction—the belief that pleasurable books are somehow slightly shameful, and that a book is not literature unless it is a tiny bit dull.
Phyllis Dorothy James should not really be a contentious figure; she is, as profile writers love to point out, a grandmother. Born in Oxford in 1920, she is a former civil servant, and she has been a magistrate and a governor of the BBC. In A Taste for Death, the fat, ambitious, and messy novel that precedes the present one, she contrives to provide a self-portrait. One of her characters, a photographer, is commissioned to take pictures of writers; in an uncharacteristically sly and witty passage, James sets before the camera "a buxom grandmother, noted for her detective stories, who gazed mournfully at the camera as if deploring either the bloodiness of her craft or the size of her advance."
In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) James gave brief play to a young, detective called Cordelia Gray, but her chief creation is Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. Although he is a thorough professional, Dalgliesh is also, like most detectives dreamed up by Englishwomen, a thorough gentleman. Urbane, elegant, and brave, he has a parallel career as a published poet, and garnishes his speech with references biblical and literary. The only son of elderly parents, he had a lonely upbringing in a country rectory; his mother died when he was fifteen. He has lost his own wife and newborn son; they were the victims of a "chance in a million" medical accident. Sometimes Dalgliesh seems too perfect to live, and too finely spiritual to care much about dying. At the beginning of The Black Tower (1975) he has been falsely diagnosed as terminally ill:
It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy.
In A Taste for Death he is hardly less enervated:
The poet who no longer writes poetry. The lover who substitutes technique for commitment. The policeman disillusioned with policing.
P. D. James's new book is set on the Norfolk coast, in that windswept and lightly populated area of England remarkable for its fine but frequently neglected churches. Its title comes from the Book of Common Prayer: "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own heart." James's preoccupation with religion softens the harsh realities in which her books deal. To perversion and blood lust, to carnage and cut throats, she brings the sensibility of the communicant Anglican. If there is no justice in this life—and in a P. D. James novel, there sometimes isn't—it is a comforting thought that there will be justice in the next.
The book's first sentence has the Jamesian mark. It is precise, direct, and opens beneath the reader a chasm of malign coincidence:
The Whistler's fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9.40. bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh.
The Whistler is a serial killer with a grisly line in postmortem handiwork; and what he whistles, as he leaves the scene of the crime, is a few bars of an obscure hymn. He operates in the area of the Larksoken nuclear power station, a concrete monolith that shares a lonely headland with the ruins of a Benedictine abbey.
As it happens, Dalgliesh has just inherited property in the neighborhood, An elderly aunt, his only remaining relative, has left him a converted windmill and a sum of money—enough money to allow him to quit the Yard, if he wishes, and devote himself full time to poetry. He is a happier man than the brooding and exhausted creature we left at the end of A Taste For Death. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy still supplies his casual reading, but there are hints that he might be falling in love—perhaps with his young colleague Inspector Kate Miskin—and he has broken his creative silence with a collection of poems called A Case to Answer.
Dalgliesh is published by Herne & Illingworth, a plausible and familiar outfit who have offices in Bedford Square; and at a plausible and familiar publishing party, their cookbook editor asks him to deliver a set of proofs to Alice Mair, an author living in Norfolk. "I wouldn't really wish to trust these proofs to the post," she says; and whereas in real life an author would reply, "Norfolk is large; send them by a courier service," Dalgliesh takes possession of the precious papers, and is led by this thin and shameless plot device to the persons at the heart of the drama.
Dalgliesh is invited to dinner by Alice Mair; among others, he meets her brother Alex, who is the director of the power station, and Larksoken's acting administrator, an abrasive young woman called Hilary Robarts. A place at table is kept for another Larksoken employee, who bursts in at a late hour to announce that he has found the Whistler's latest victim; shocked, and later drunk, he reveals more than is tasteful about the killer's modus operandi. So when in due course Dalgliesh is taking a walk on the beach and comes across a corpse, the people at the dinner party—in addition to a local teen-ager acting as a waitress—are suspects. For the new death is that of Hilary Robarts herself, and although her murder has all the Whistler's trademarks, the serial killer cannot possibly be responsible; he has committed suicide in a seaside hotel some hours earlier.
Hilary Robarts's enemies extend beyond the dinner party. There is Ryan Blaney, a drunken artist and widower who lives with his four children in a ramshackle cottage that Robarts owns. She is trying to evict him: motive enough there, perhaps? Also on the scene are Caroline Amphlett, Alex's personal assistant, an ice-cool blonde who has started an unlikely love affair with a boring, blotchy young scientist; an antinuclear campaigner whom Robarts is suing for libel; a waif called Amy, who lives with the protester in his caravan, who sometimes receives old postcards from London, and who has no job, no welfare entitlement, yet a small but mysterious income.
P. D. James's handling of the nuclear power issue is knowledgeable and cautious. Larksoken dominates the Norfolk landscape as its churches once did, but Alex Mair thinks it transitory, "both the science and the symbol." Yet while it lasts, it purveys a message
both simple and expedient, that man, by his own intelligence and his own efforts, could understand and master his world, could make his transitory life more agreeable, more comfortable, more free of pain.
We may assume James to be in broad agreement with Alex, since she frequently uses her characters as mouthpieces; but in this novel nuclear power is a device rather than a desire. In inventing Larksoken James has created only a modern version of the closed society—the island, the country house—in which to entrap her large and diverse cast. The headland itself is a closed world, its inhabitants able to monitor one another's comings and goings; all of it can be overseen by the godlike Dalgliesh, from the top story of his windmill. But within this world the power station is a smaller world still, enclosed by its security systems and the demands that it places on its personnel, isolated as they are by arcane, dangerous knowledge.
Devices and Desires is a leisurely and confident book, a considerable feat of organization. It is a much better book than its predecessor, for it does not have the monotony of tone of A Taste for Death that makes it hard to read more than fifty pages at a time; and it is much more successful in keeping the reader in suspense, for in the last book the guilty party was set up early on as a highly unpleasant sociopath. There is some strikingly good writing in Devices and Desires, and a great deal of competent unmemorable workaday prose. P. D. James has cultivated a style that seldom teases or questions the reader, and does not question itself. Her descriptive writing leaves nothing unsaid; she has not mastered the art of the judicious omission. Certainly her digressions are part of the pleasure of her books, and give them dignity and weight. The patinas and aromas of a country kitchen, the wineglass pulpit in the church at Salle, all receive more loving attention than does the plot itself, and from time to time an image that is both felicitous and congruous, embedded in an otherwise unremarkable passage, will surprise:
Before them, at the edge of the cliff, crumbling against the skyline like a child's sand castle rendered amorphous by the advancing tide, was the ruined Benedictine abbey. He could just make out the great empty arch of the east window and beyond it the shimmer of the North Sea, while above, seeming to move through and over it like a censer, swung the smudged yellow disc of the moon.
Her dialogue, on the other hand, is weak. Speakers are hardly differentiated, and all of them are too fluent, given to speechifying, articulate in an unlikely way about their deepest emotions, their most troubling and troublesome thoughts. When the Whistler is still on the loose, Meg Dennison describes her feelings thus:
When night falls and we're sitting there by the fire, I can imagine him out there in the darkness, watching and waiting. It's that sense of the unseen, unknowable menace which is so disquieting. It's rather like the feeling I get from the power station, that there's a dangerous unpredictable power out on the headland which I can't control or even begin to understand.
The characters are always ready with an obliging label for their own feelings. The discoverer of a corpse says, a few hours after the event, "Looking back, my emotions were complicated, a mixture of horror, disbelief and, well, shame."
This stilted stuff is the work of a writer who has never, found her characters' voices, and who has not thought it necessary to distinguish their observations and sentiments from her own. But set against that, there is the immense trouble she takes to provide the most minor character with a detailed curriculum vitae. Sometimes the digressions are carried to irritating lengths; when a pathologist turns up to examine Hilary Robarts's mutilated body, we are given a quick rundown on his tastes in music and women, when all we want to know from him is how long she's been dead. Here, the accumulation of detail does little but hold up the action.
Yet the crablike excursions around and behind the characters can also be felicitous. Jonathan Reeves, the colorless young scientist who has been taken up by Alex Mair's assistant, is a marginal character, but P. D. James subjects his cramped and stifled childhood to her detailed scrutiny:
His father had worked for fifty years in the carpet department of a large store in Clapham…. The firm let him have carpets at less than cost price; the off-cuts … he got for nothing…. Sometimes it seemed that their thick-pile wool and nylon had absorbed and deadened not only their footsteps. His mother's calm response to any event was either "Very nice," equally appropriate in an enjoyable dinner, a royal engagement or birth or a spectacular sunrise, or "Terrible, terrible, isn't it? You wonder sometimes what the world's coming to," which covered events as diverse as Kennedy's assassination, a particularly gruesome murder, children abused or violated or an IRA bomb. But she didn't wonder what the world was coming to. Wonder was an emotion long since stifled by Axminster, mohair, underfelt.
So there you have the post-1945 lower-middle classes of England: their interior decor, their phiiistinism, their peculiar self-contained fortitude. It seems ungrateful to ask if there is something extravagant and unnecessary in the character building, when it is so convincingly done; James has a keen eye for the little social markers the British employ and enjoy. P. D. James's ability to distill and bottle the essence of Britishness—or what seems to be the essence of Britishness—must surely be a factor in her popularity in the US; and in a nation increasingly self-conscious about its "heritage" and national character, it may well be a source of happiness to her readers at home.
Of course, detective fiction in Britain has always been class-conscious. A murder in a slum is not an object of remark; but a murder in a country house is worth a book. If we assume—and it's the traditional assumption—that the affluent middle classes lead well-conducted, orderly lives, murder has great shock value; and well-bred persons with everything to lose, persons of position and wealth, are likely targets for blackmailers, and are more likely to indulge in complicating, face-saving cover-ups. Besides, when we stumble across the body in the library, find Lady Bountiful slashed and clobbered beside her objets d'art, we can console ourselves that wealth did not bring her happiness. Useless to convict the classic detective story of coziness; it was meant to make us feel better, and coziness was its heart.
P. D. James does not give us the bloodless corpses of a more genteel age—her images are graphic, though never gloating—and she aims to run the gamut of society, from the lord to the tramp. She is most comfortable among the middle classes, and is not good with the lower orders. She uses her working-class characters to provide humor—of which, otherwise, there's not much in her books.
Yet in every matter—emotional, social—Dalgliesh is the arbiter of taste. Idealized and idolized by his creator in the most old-fashioned way, just as Dorothy L. Sayers idolized Lord Peter Wimsey, Dalgliesh is everything a woman would wish a man to be. He will rush into a burning room to save someone with whom he has slight acquaintance; but he can also cook up a comforting cassoulet. He is reserved, self-contained, needs nobody—but he is sensitive to the feelings of others. Another policeman in the novel, Rickards, is less attractive and more fallible than Dalgliesh. Rickards is in charge of the local police investigation. He lacks both Dalgliesh's probing intellect and his social savoir-faire; his young wife has a "dressing table, kidney-shaped,… trimmed with pink-and-white flowered voile, the pretty matching set of ring-stand and tray … neatly in place."
One takes the point: here's more of the lower middle-class's prissiness and tackiness. Yet in real life you would have to go back a few years to find a dressing table like that. P. D. James takes immense trouble to put her characters in their contexts, to convey to us the mundane details of their lives, but it is a qualified sort of social realism she employs. Sometimes the text is abuzz with current concerns. A neighbor of Alice Mair's, for instance, is a former London schoolteacher, who was driven from her job by a ferocious race-relations lobby after she refused to call a blackboard a "chalkboard." Elsewhere, one feels social changes have passed the author by: does any young woman these days give up work in anticipation of becoming pregnant?
In one important respect, however, James, is against coziness. Throughout Devices and Desires she seems to be engaged in a conscious rebellion against the neatness of detective fiction. When the ex-schoolteacher seeks spiritual counsel from the elderly clergyman for whom she keeps house, she finds him absorbed in one of the Inspector Ghote stories of H. R. F. Keating; and the priest is impatient to be done with her difficult questions and get back to the gentler, more certain world that the book offers him. Ghote, says P. D. James,
would get there in the end, because this was fiction: problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter.
A P. D. James book does not leave its readers with any similar comfort. The mere solution of the crime will not put the world to rights. Any solution will in itself contain areas of ambiguity, and guilt will be well distributed between murderer, victim, and bystanders. In this latest book, the crime itself seems less important than the effect it has on those left alive; it brings out their interesting vulnerabilities and perplexities, and causes them to engage in pages of moral debate. Murder, as James remarks in A Taste For Death, is "the first destroyer of privacy"; and in the wake of murder, the people left alive lay bare their souls. "At the heart of the universe there is love," says one character; another counters, "At the heart of the universe there is cruelty."
James is so absorbed in this debate that she wraps up her plot in a way that some readers may find unsatisfactory. Caroline Amphlett proves to be a member of a terrorist group operating from Germany; the witless waif Amy, an animal liberationist, has been drawn into a plot to take over power stations throughout Europe. This subplot is worked in late, proves to be only a diversion from the identity of the real murderer, and does not in itself convince. In A Taste for Death James gave a young female character a set of left-wing, vaguely subversive views, perhaps reasoning that such a device adds another layer of menace; here she repeats the trick, on a bigger scale but in a similar unsophisticated way. The reader finds that motives he had taken to be personal were in fact ideological, and may justifiably grumble that he has no way of keeping up with the ploys of an author who is prepared to toss in the notion of an international terrorist ring without some little advance warning.
When the story is at its most domestic it is at its most plausible, and the true murderer does have personal motives. Disappointingly, they are motives the reader has already begun to guess at, but no doubt the author does not care about that; the revelation of bloody deeds and who did them is secondary to the revelation of the murderer's selfish, irreligious, amoral view of life, and her "intellectual and spiritual arrogance." Throughout the book the reader knows more than the police, for he is privy to the secrets of the murderer's childhood and the details of her relationship with her brother. The reader certainly knows more than Dalgliesh; Adam is not part of the local force, is not officially attached to the investigation, and he is kept on the sidelines by his own sense of propriety and by the antagonism of Rickards. The identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader in a conversation between Alice and another character, in which Dalgliesh plays no part; so it is impossible to see how he arrives at the truth, and one can only attribute it to the free-floating intuition with which his creator has so thoughtfully provided him.
The truth may be that it is not the specifics of detection that interest P. D. James at this stage of her career; it is the nature of the detective's job. On the scene of the crime, the police watch and listen as others express their shock and grief—they share in other people's lives, but at the same time stand back and observe them, ready, with the notebook. Dalgliesh's misgivings about his profession are misgivings he shares with his author. Policemen, like novelists, have to find the shape and form in random and meaningless events; like policemen, novelists rebuke themselves for coldness of heart. As a tool for getting at the truth, police work has its dissatisfactions and limitations; so does crime fiction.
By the end you know everything, or think you do. Where, when, who, how. You might even know why if you're lucky. And yet, essentially, you know nothing. All that wickedness, and you don't have to explain it or understand it or do a bloody thing about it except put a stop to it.
The detective closes his file; the author closes her book; both are exhausted, both dissatisfied. Where does this dissatisfaction lead?
The same Philip Oakes who takes P. D. James to task for her indirect methods agrees that she is justifiably praised for her "ability to flower within the discipline of a genre." But this discipline is now a constraint. In Devices and Desires signs of strain are evident. The murderer is a character whom James has brought us to respect, but whom she—and we—in the end must find morally repulsive. Subtleties are on offer—too many subtleties to be contained within the format of murder investigation-solution; and within the adipose mass of this novel is a thinner, sharper, wiser book trying to fight its way out.
Some years ago, James wrote an interesting novel called Innocent Blood, a psychological thriller with no Adam Dalgliesh, no Cordelia Gray. Her admirers will wonder if she will now provide another such book, a book not subject to the stultifying rules of detective fiction. It seems almost an insult to apply the label "promising" to an author who is in her seventieth year and who has written eleven novels; but her books constantly promise what they do not perform. Once the rules of a chosen genre cramp creative thought, there seems no reason why an able and interesting writer should accept them. It is fashionable, though reprehensible, for writers to prescribe for other writers. But perhaps the time has come for P. D. James to slide out of her handcuffs, kick off her concrete boots, and stride onto the territory of the mainstream novel.
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SOURCE: "Barren Earth," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 5, No. 221, September 25, 1992, p. 55.
[In the following review, Hughes praises the first part of James's The Children of Men as "fascinating stuff," but complains that the narrative of the second section "begins to droop."]
The Children of Men is P. D. James' first attempt to move outside the detective novel, a literary form that she has done so much to rehabilitate over the past ten years. It's interesting, therefore, that for this most significant of forays she chose another well-defined genre in which to work. The whole point about a dystopia is that it presents us with a nightmare vision of the future in order to warn about disturbing trends in the present. This is where The Children of Men succeeds magnificently. The year is 2021. In a clever reversal of the usual Malthusian armageddon, the population is drastically on the decline. No children have been born for 25 years and, despite the three-monthly compulsory sperm and gynae checks, it seems unlikely that any ever will.
To fill the aching void, kittens and dolls are fussed over, baptised and snatched from their prams by would-be "mothers". Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of old people keep their heads down in a desperate hope of dodging the Quietus: the state-organised mass suicide whose benign rituals fail to offer comfort or meaning.
This terrible tale is told by Theo Farren, an Oxford history don. But what an Oxford this is. With no undergraduates left to teach, Farren is reduced to taking souped-up evening classes on Victorian Life and Times for 50 year-old women who should, in a better world, be occupied with their grandchildren. In this era of state-supported narcissism, he reports every week to the city's massage centre, aka Lady Margaret Hall, for a "carefully measured hour of sensual pampering".
While his brain is as sharp as ever, Farren has surrendered his moral and ethical self to the ethics of "protection, comfort and pleasure", which just about hold the rage and darkness in check. Whereas once he had a post of influence as adviser to the ruling Council, these days Farren spends his time in resigned anomie, pottering around the Ashmoleum. The roots of his paralysis soon become clear: 25 years ago he committed the greatest crime of all, accidentally killing his baby daughter during one of the last fertile years on the planet.
Like most dystopias, the first part of The Children of Men is fascinating stuff, painting a future that has just that right blend of familiarity and strangeness. Above all, it is fun to insert ourselves in James' imaginary historical trajectory: the 1990s, it emerges, were a time of mass emigration, religious and tribal war. The playing out of our own demographic "hiccough", the ageing population, is done with particular skill. James' prose is as lucid as ever, devoid of pretension and utterly compelling.
The problem comes in the second part of the book. The moment Farren chooses action and engagement, the narrative begins to droop. Approached at Magdalen Evensong—rituals such as these now seem strangely desolate—he finds himself drawn to a group of five dissidents. One of them, the oddly named Julian, is pregnant, and the group decides to go on the run in order to protect this most miraculous of births from state interference. From here the story degenerates into the how-much-petrol-have-we-got-left? variety. Even the scary bits—somebody gets lynched, someone else gets garrotted—fail to raise the required shock.
As these rather obvious parallels with the nativity story suggest, James works into her narrative a story of Christian redemption. Despite his attendance at Evensong, Farren has resigned himself to a wearied and wearying agnosticism, regarding the group's Christianity as just one more sloppy delusion of the New Age. However, his love for Julian and his awe at her ability to create life pull him back to the heart of belief. In the end, he breaks the paralysis of so many years by making the sign of the cross on the child "with a thumb wet with his own tears and stained with her blood". A better world, it seems, is on its way.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998
SOURCE: "O Brave New World, That Has No People In't!" in New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review, Wangerin discusses the two adventures in James's The Children of Men.]
On New Year's Day, 2021, "the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl." He was 25. It has been 25 years since a global disease rendered all human sperm infertile, 25 years, therefore, since any baby has been born to bear the future of humankind. The same day marks the 50th birthday of Theodore Faron, doctor of philosophy. On this day he begins to keep a journal as a "small additional defense against personal accidie."
With such swift strokes P. D. James establishes the central premise of her new novel, The Children of Men. There follow two worthy adventures for Miss James, for her protagonist and for the thoughtful reader:
The first concerns final efforts at saving this race, the people, us. The first adventure exemplifies what has always made Miss James's detective fiction structured and strong: story. But Theodore Faron's real story—the sequence of events that drives toward a conclusion that must succeed, or else all fails—is slow to start. Not till Chapter Six does Faron meet the woman, Julian, who will involve him and us in plots. And even then things unfold slowly. Faron is not easily persuaded to crack his self-containment for the sake of others. It's not in his character. (He notes his "terror of taking responsibility for other people's lives or happiness.") Nor is it in the times. ("But those who lived gave way to the almost universal negativism, what the French named ennui universel.") In fact, the novel's Book One, "Omega," acts much as a set-up for the story that does not dominate until Book Two, "Alpha."
But it doesn't matter. The reader can certainly wait for action since the second adventure of the book—perhaps the more fascinating one—is the meditation that its premise encourages. In a recent interview, Miss James said, "I thought, if there was no future, how would we behave?" No future, not because it has been canceled suddenly, as by nuclear war, but because it has been cut off at the source: no babies, no next generation. Those alive are thus granted their fullness of years but their deaths are made dreadfully significant. When they die, all die. Contemplating that, in Book One, is the more terrible adventure. For look what becomes of us when we are the end, the point of it all:
Love is lavished on the inanimate. "Doll-making was the only section of the toy industry which … flourished; it had produced dolls for the whole range of frustrated maternal desire." And when Faron sees one woman dash the doll of another against a stone wall, its "mother" screams "the scream of the tortured, the bereaved, the terrified."
The last-born men and women, that final generation whom society calls "our Omegas," are strikingly handsome and talented but, as far as others are concerned, cold and incurious. Faron writes, "If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils."
Fatalism, boredom, crime and religious hysteria increase. The Isle of Man is turned into a penal colony where thieves are dumped to survive or to die murdering one another.
The people hoard against a time when the state will fail. But, careless of anybody save themselves, they permit a dictator to rule England absolutely, serving his own power rather than their welfare. By his decree the old are herded onto a ship for a seeming mass suicide, a ritual called the Quietus. But these people are in fact not suicides but victims—drugged and set adrift to drown. And Theodore Faron, trying to save one woman from the Quietus, is beaten senseless by a soldier of the state.
That, for him, is the crucial event. Pity cracks his solitude. He begins to heed Julian, the woman who believes she holds in herself the potential for a future. Since the dictator of England is Faron's cousin, Julian has begged him to reason with the man before she and her group begin subversive activity. After the Quietus Faron agrees and speaks with his cousin. But the dictator remains immovable, and Faron makes a commitment to others in spite of himself. And so begins the action of the book.
Plot, under Miss James's hand, is never merely external action. Always she explores character, the complexities of motive and thought and emotion; and always she wonders about the nature of humankind in general—this baffling admixture of good and evil, faith and failure, love and a murderous self-sufficiency. In her other novels, the author's attention is upon the plot and these concerns appear only indirectly. But here Miss James makes these contemplations the very business of her book, and her view is Olympian.
From the premise of this novel, death takes on tremendous dimension. And as Faron grows to love Julian, love is purged of personal return. In the time of endings, choices are reduced to the most basic, for self or for others, and those who choose selflessness choose genuine sacrifice, dying for Julian—who believes she is pregnant—and for the sake of the future.
And birth—for this must be the real plot, the real rebellion, the real potency and salvation of humankind—the birth of a single child becomes a thing of ineffable glory.
If there is a baby, there is a future, there is redemption. From this, Miss James's book draws—but not heavily—a mythic breath.
And she herself signals the source of its title and perhaps of its hope. During a makeshift funeral for one who sacrificed his life for Julian and the future, Faron reads from an old prayer book this psalm: "Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another…. Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men."
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SOURCE: "The Decline and Fall of the Human Race," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 12.
[In the following review, Sallis argues that James fails in her intentions in The Children of Men.]
There is but one liberty: to come to terms with death, Camus wrote, after which all things are possible.
It is not individual death that James confronts in her new novel[, The Children of Men,] but the potential death of the human race itself. Suddenly, mysteriously, humankind has stopped bearing children. Values have collapsed. Apathy blankets what activity remains.
There is, of course, no art; museums and all our grand ambitions stand unattended; government-sponsored porn shops attempt to flog what sexual, creative drive lies dormant. "Human mules deprived of posterity," men and women endure the rag ends of their lives. Women push dolls in elaborate prams about the streets; men preserve what empty social forms they can. In a few the sense of despair is so great that they ally themselves to horrendously doomed causes.
The stage is set, then; we are prepared for a sweeping, perhaps ultimately poetic evocation of mankind's twilight, something in the vein of Stapledon, or of George Stewart's Earth Abides.
What would society be like, what might it become, or unbecome, under absolute sentence of death? Able to pass nothing on, unable to reproduce itself even symbolically, without social structures to place and hold us in place, what reasons could humankind find for going on?
Unfortunately, P. D. James fails to follow through on the implications of her theme and instead elects to let it all down into a curious meld of melodrama and religious symbolism. The impending birth of a child—immaculate, one might say, since no explanation for this reversal of mankind's barrenness is offered—brings on a flurry of religious referents: the manger-like shed where the birth takes place, the ritual killing of the father, the pursuit by authorities, the personal sacrifices and martyrdom of those close, even the betrayal by one "disciple."
Something beyond mere habit draws readers to genres such as the mystery or science-fiction. With the latter sometimes called a literature of ideas, the attraction is often the genre's potential for concept, and all too often this has led to a fiction in which characters are carried off on the runaway horse of plot.
When writers veer toward science-fiction, as mystery novelist James does here, it's precisely this idea that beckons, and however fine these writers are, because they have little idea of what has been and is being done in the genre, because they're overwhelmed by the sheer amplitude of what they are essaying, the results are often disappointing.
Writing of dystopias casts these difficulties into further relief. Few non-genre writers even recognize the need to imagine, truly imagine, an alternative society; fewer still have the imaginative power and discipline to do so. Because of this, virtually all mainstream dystopias (along with most genre ones, I rush to emphasize) come down simply to some thwarting of individualism and, with its re-trumpeting, restoration of an order remarkably like the one we've got. Thesis, antithesis, status quo.
Squarely in the British tradition, James is a master of character and contributing incident, her novel from first to last exceedingly well-wrought. Its primary pleasures are those of craft: a deft interleafing of lives, the reflective interaction of first-person and omniscient point of view, the sure voice and pace, the seamless narrative.
Children of Men, is, too, an elaborately figured novel. There is, first, the religious undertow. An ongoing, almost programmatic political discourse winds its way throughout. A man's killing of his own daughter flows into the murder of one woman's doll by another jealous woman on the street, and this in turn on to the birth of the new child. The novel's early elegiac tone is quite beautiful: equal measures of celebration and sorrow, a sadness for all things unsaid, undone, forever unredeemed.
It's at the very point this tone shifts that the novel falters, exposing a hollowness more distressing than its decline into melodrama and conventional territory.
Since useful works of art rarely are about what they seem to be about, then we must wonder; finally, whether The Children of Men may not be at its deepest level a kind of eulogy for Britain and for a way of life that James recognizes is gone. Her metaphor of a world from which the life force has departed, her portrait of a final, declining generation, even the novel's polite, dissembling language, suggest this.
To every appearance, James set out to provide a cosmic poem; considered for a while folding in the makings of a political novel; decided somewhere along the way to interpolate a religious fable; and ended up with a book that's none of these, but a kind of sympathy card for her own time and class. Relics of empire thick on the tea cozy, as one poet put it … however beautiful the relics, however fine and bracing the tea.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
SOURCE: "On the Case of the Baroness," in Observer Review, October 16, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following interview, Kellaway discusses with James setting, the enjoyment of detective fiction, and research.]
In P D James's outstanding new novel, Original Sin, set in London, she writes about buildings with detailed attention, as if they were suspects. Her imagination is a zealous architect. Original Sin is dominated by a stupendous, white pseudo-Venetian edifice by the Thames, occupied by a publishing company and called, with stark irony, Innocent House. She says: 'Houses betray character so clearly, they really do.'
Her house in Holland Park, built in 1830, is grand and green with white slatted shutters, a square, reliable face with a faded burglar alarm on the wall. Baroness James of Holland Park is small, vigorously intelligent and benign (she addresses me soothingly as 'dear').
We settle in her sitting room on a sofa, upholstered in linen, in a leafy beige-and-green William Morris design. In the infrequent pauses in the conversation, I try to apply P D James's own methods to her sitting room—an autumnal room full of antiques. I scribble particulars: a red-and-gold mirror, imitation primroses popping cheekily out of a box, a solitaire board with plain glass marbles; two Staffordshire dogs on the mantelpiece, noses sniffily held high.
It's a comfortable, conservative room and in this, it reflects its owner (she's right-wing, C of E, a Vice-President of the Prayer Book Society). It is only after leaving that I realise the room reminds me of something else. The dogs, the primroses, the sofa are all in the novel, in the flat of mediocre, elderly crime writer, Esmé Carling. She's a grotesque alter-ego for P D James, sacked by her firm after 30 years, then bumped off.
P D James (born in 1920) has also been writing for over 30 years. Her novels are Victorian in their spaciousness, exciting but leisurely. These are books to escape into, delighting in the sense that you are in safe hands, no matter how unsafe the subject. Her last book, The Children of Men, was an enjoyable sortie into futuristic fiction but with Original Sin she has, triumphantly, reverted to original form.
There is a nice line in the book: 'what people believed about themselves seldom bore resemblance to how they behaved in reality.' Did P D James think this true of herself? 'We produce for the world and for our protection a carapace,' she says fluently, 'I probably come over as self-confident but I wonder if I am. I'm even-tempered, I have to say, but I'm sure I'm capable of considerable violence and aggression.' As she speaks, a little white cat, on the edge of sleep, presses its head adoringly under her hand.
'I wonder if the personality is fixed or fluid, whether it is a rock or a moving river. One is never able to point and say: that's the place where it really resides.' In Original Sin, most characters lead over-furnished, under-fulfilled lives. Murder comes almost like fresh air blowing into stuffy rooms. P D James says that W H Auden thought 'good' settings (English villages) necessary to crime novels. She does not feel that the setting need be virtuous but agrees that order must be overtaken by 'disorder that can't be put right'. Is it not shameful that the violence, the disorder, should be so enjoyable to read about? She argues that, within a detective novel, violence 'reinforces a reader's sense of safety, offers a controllable level of violence. There's sort of catharsis of horror'. Her books take months to plot: 'The process is mysterious, it feels as if the characters exist in limbo and I am getting in touch with them. It's revelation rather than creation. My writing is visual, I write as if I were shooting film.'
How would she feel if her detective Adam Dalgleish were to materialise on her doorstep? 'If I met him I would say "I did enjoy your last book of verse" and I wonder if he would then look at me very coolly … Dalgleish is a spectator. C P Snow, not and author you think of quoting that often, said "there's great dignity in the role of spectator but if you do it for long enough you lose your soul".'
She writes at her kitchen table with a pot of coffee at hand (the novel runs on caffeine too, after each corpse, there's a call for coffee). Does writing come effortlessly? 'On the whole it is enthralling—I think that is the word to use.'
She finds research enthralling, too. While studying the history of the Thames and the wreck of a palace steamer called the Princess Alice in 1778, a friend gave her a memo book of the period. She was amazed to read: 'My son James was Drowned in the Princess Alice which sank the Poor Fellow was found on the evening 7th Sept 78 and Buried at St Thomas Church on the Evening, 9th Sept 78.'
P D James shows me the battered book. The handwriting is flourishing, the writer's name forgotten. P D James discovers a recipe for ginger beer, involving bruised ginger, loaf sugar, yeast, which she reads aloud. It is much longer than the report of the son's death. P D James studies the book, rapt, sympathetic, calm. She is, by nature, a detective herself.
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SOURCE: "The Fast River and the Tranquil Lake," in Observer Review, October 23, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following essay, Gerrard contrasts the work of P. D. James and Walter Mosley, focusing on her Original Sin and his Black Betty.]
Baroness P D James writes novels that are like reservoirs: pleasant, contained, uninfested, damned up, with the occasional controlled trickle of water releasing pressure. Walter Mosley writes novels that are like fast rivers: out of control, dirty with the discharges of human lives, flooding and parching with the seasons, rushing to a polluted sea. In P D James's fiction, bodies are fished out of the water, which then resumes its customary tranquillity. In Walter Mosley's, corpses are tugged past on swollen rapids, irrecoverable and part of the tide in the affairs of men.
She's white, English, Conservative and conservative. He's black, American, radical and with the dubious blessing of being President Clinton's favourite living writer. She writes old-fashioned detective stories of order disrupted then restored, which are essentially and wonderfully reassuring. He writes ragged thrillers in which domestic violence and political corruption are the norms.
She uses the language of the Prayer Book and Palgrave's Golden Treasury. He turns to the language of the street, sing-song patois of despair. Her settings are vaulty churches, the plainsong of mudflats and curlews, elegant drawing rooms. His are seedy bars, shacks, alleyways where men fight, dirt tracks. She's a melancholy, calm optimist; he is a rhapsodic, sexy pessimist. They face each other across a gulf of cultures and values: the jig saw and the ice pick.
In James's most recent novel, Original Sin, all the virtues and faults of the old practitioner are laid out. In a gleaming, mock-Venetian palace on the Thames, which houses the literary publisher, Peverell Press, a murderer is at large: killing the new and thrusting director, playing grotesque practical jokes, filling the conventional lives of the editors, secretaries and accountants with dread. Almost all of the players had motive and opportunity: who could it be?
Well, I'm not telling you. But Adam Dalgliesh and his team are back, after James's brief excursion into futuristic mode with The Children of Men, and they examine the clues with their customary satisfying precision. Not so satisfying is the editing: there are careless and intrusive repetitions throughout the book (on page 387 we read: 'He turned the pages with some interest. There were thin red lines down each margin and the middle of the page. He knew little of the Anglican Prayer Book but he turned the stiff brown pages with some interest'—this is first draft stuff).
Some of the characters do not develop beyond working-notes: Mandy Price, perky working-class secretary with an urchin's quickness; Miss Blackett (Blackie), the dowdy and dutiful PA who adored the old boss and loathes the new order; Frances Peverell, gentle, lovely and deprived …
In one sense, James's conventional woodenness hardly matters; it's even part of her enduring appeal and pleasure, for she makes every episode and each character in Original Sin significant to the plot. How can we expect her, labouring as she is under the bulk of her satisfying formula, to write about the mess, randomness and insoluble hopelessness of human lives? How can she hope to write well when she has to write, predictably? How can she be complicated when in the end everything reduces to one answer and no questions?
With Mosley's Black Betty nothing reduces. The novel—Mosley's fourth Easy Rawlins thriller—opens with an epigraph which is entitled 'Ghetto Pedagogy' ('Dad?' 'Yes.' 'Why do black men always kill each other?' Long pause, 'Practising'). It continues on a long note of vivid despair. Kennedy is in the White House. Martin Luther King in the news, but for Easy Rawlins, times are getting tougher: there's no money; Easy's best friends, the dapper and murderous psychopath Mouse, is looking for very rough rough justice; Easy's woman has left him for another man; his children need more than his brand of patch-together tenderness. Then he's asked to track down Black Betty, and he leaves his problems behind him, only to blunder into new ones.
In Mosley's fictional world, there's no such thing as innocence. There's hope (which Mosley calls naivete), and anger (which Mosley calls sense). There's law (white law), cops (the real criminals) and justice (which exists only in a heaven he doesn't believe in). There's love (which he calls heartache), and trying (failure), and then, of course, there's trouble ('The first thing that a black man and a poor man learns is that trouble is all he's got so that's what he has to work with').
Mosley's novel carries the opposite message from James's Easy Rawlins solves one crime but unleashes several more. As soon as he acts, he betrays and is betrayed. The book—written in language that is quick, witty and soulful—is about the lack of control that ordinary black people have over their lives. Not a whodunnit or whydunnit but a we've-dunnit again.
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SOURCE: "Look, No Handcuffs," in Spectator, October 29, 1994, pp. 39, 41.
[In the following review, Waugh lauds James for "deliver[ing] a tightly woven plot, with no unnecessary digressions" in Original Sin.]
What a relief! The mooning poet, uninterested in murder, of Devices and Desires, is hardly glimpsed in P. D. James' new novel, Original Sin. Instead she delivers a tightly woven plot, with no unnecessary digressions.
Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish and his team are called in to investigate the death of Gerard Etienne, the good-looking, hard-nosed chairman of the old-fashioned, privately owned publishing house. Peverell Press. It is not initially clear (except to the reader who can see it coming) whether Gerard's death is murder or accident, although Dalgleish does know that the firm is already contending with the suicide of one of its editors and a malicious practical joker out to embarrass the company and make it look incompetent. To temporary secretary Mandy Price (who is the unlucky discoverer of two of the four bodies that punctuate the narrative), her fellow employees seemed an odd bunch right from the start. The Peverell Press, founded in 1792, is housed in Innocent House, a mock Venetian palace on the Thames at Wapping. The chairman, Henry Peverell, has just died and his partner, a reclusive hero of the French Resistance, Jean-Philippe Etienne, has retired to the marshes leaving the firm in the able hands of his son Gerard who, to save it from bankruptcy, is embarking on brutally enforced changes, Innocent House is to be sold and few jobs are safe.
Frances Peverell, the pretty, retiring daughter of the previous chairman, who is one of the partners and has always lived at Innocent House, hates Gerard both for his intention of selling her family heritage and because he coolly seduced and discarded her. The youngest partner of the firm, James de Witt, is in love with her and has real cause to know that Gerard is an evil man. Gerard's brittle sister Claudia, who would take over as chairman in the event of his death, wishes to free some of her money from the company to buy her toy-boy antique-dealer lover a shop. Then there is Blackie, Henry Peverell's devoted secretary, who is humiliated and denigrated by Gerard; Gabriel Dauntsey, an old man, once a promising poet, who has written nothing since the war but is in charge of the poetry list; and Mrs Carling, a boozy detective novelist who is being dropped by the firm and is unlikely to find another publisher.
So when Gerard is discovered one morning, shirtless, with Blackie's cloth snake wound round his neck and stuffed in his mouth in the archive room at the top of the building the reader is hardly surprised. There are plenty of suspects and, as it turns out, secrets for Dalgleish to absorb into his amoeba-like mind, especially as the murderer does not stop at Gerard.
Original Sin, unlike P. D. James' last two detective novels, is truly plot-driven. The characters and the past gradually divulge their secrets. Lies are exposed that shock the reader, and, most importantly of all, there is no melodramatic sub-plot tacked on with a view to a subsequent television series. The novel is greatly influenced to good effect by Mamet's flawed film Homicide, giving the final double twist at the end a kick like a mule. As has become usual with contemporary detective fiction, handcuffs play no part in the denouement.
It is difficult not to feel sorry for the police heroes of these tales as they arrive too late to do anything but give a valedictory glance at the outcome of murder and mayhem. Their deductive ability is set at naught. Instead, the passions of man bring about their own inevitable retribution. There is, I think, a natural conservatism at the heart of the detective-fiction writer that resents the anti-climax inherent in a life sentence which often means the murderer doing time for as little as ten years. It has led to the emasculation of the police inspector. At least the American private eye shoots the murderer.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
SOURCE: "Death and Dire Doings?: Time to Call Dalgliesh," in New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1995, p. C17.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt complains that James's Original Sin contains too much clutter and irrelevant descriptions.]
The touch of symbolism is not gentle in Original Sin, P. D. James's latest mystery featuring Comdr. Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. At the story's opening, Mandy Price, a young temporary typist, rides her motorbike to work at The Peverell Press, a venerable London publishing firm situated in a mock-Venetian palace on the Thames called Innocent House.
When Mandy arrives, she is taken upstairs by Claudia Etienne, a senior executive, to fetch a tape recording that needs transcribing. Miss Etienne pushes open the door to the archive room. As the text then reads:
The stink rolled out to meet out to meet them like an evil wraith, the familiar smell of vomit, not strong but so unexpected that Mandy instinctively recoiled. Over Miss Etienne's shoulder her eyes took in at once a small room with an uncarpeted wooden floor, a square table to the right of the door and a single high window. Under the window was a narrow divan bed and on the bed sprawled a woman.
It had needed no smell to tell Mandy that she was looking at death.
Catapulted by this strong opening, the reader races ahead to learn that the woman on the bed has committed suicide, in part because she has been sacked by the house's new head, Gerard Etienne, Claudia's brother, a brusquely forceful man who wants to modernize Peverell Press. In the process he will make many enemies, and apparently for this reason he will soon be discovered in the same archive room dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Wrapped around his neck with its head stuffed in his mouth will be found a toy snake made of striped green velvet and "intended to be laid along the bottom of doors to exclude draughts, or wound round the handles to keep the door ajar."
In a novel called Original Sin, a snake has been wrapped around a corpse in a place called Innocent House. Beside the building flows the River Thames, described portentously enough in the novel to suggest the river of life.
Yet however heavily such symbolism may weigh, Miss James for a change actually develops its meaning here instead of squandering it as she has done so often in her previous fiction. As the plot of Original Sin develops, the apparent frivolousness of representing evil with a button-eyed toy snake seems more and more appropriate considering its irrelevance to the real guilt that hands over Innocent House.
And as the reason for Etienne's murder is revealed, we are confronted with deep issues of sin and retribution, one of the most perplexing of which engages Inspector Daniel Aaron, a subordinate of Dalgliesh's who asks of his Jewish heritage: "Why must I define myself by the wrongs others have done to my race? The guilt was bad enough; do I have to carry the burden of innocence also? I'm a Jew, isn't that enough? Do I have to represent to myself and others the evil of mankind?"
The real trouble with Original Sin, as so often with Miss James's fiction, is the disturbing clutter of its narrative. For all its philosophical questing, the story remains at heart a whodunit, and much of its energy goes to pumping up plausible suspects who are either not thematically relevant or not particularly interesting. Among these is Esme Carling, a mystery writer about whom her agent remarks after she is murdered: "She wasn't that bad. I mean, she could write literate prose, and that's rare enough nowadays. Peverell Press wouldn't have published her otherwise. She wasn't consistent. Just when you thought: God, I can't go on with this boring drivel, she'd produce a really good passage and the book would suddenly come alive."
One has to bite one's tongue.
And then there is Miss James's insistence on describing absolutely everything. She does write literate prose that creates a variety of moods. But so much of her scene-setting serves no other purpose than to create impenetrable atmosphere. For instance, pages are devoted to describing in loving detail the locale of a lunch that Dalgliesh eats with a friend, the Cadaver Club, "not among the most prestigious of London's private clubs but its coterie of members find it among the most convenient." And yet the story never returns there.
A character can't enter a room without being lost in its furnishings. A result is the loss of all sense of pace. When the story reaches its climax and details become important to what's happening, the narrative has no reserves to draw upon.
You also have to wonder sometimes about Miss James's awareness of her effects. Surely, given the novel's symbolic threads, an incident in which a character returns home to find her garden vandalized by motor bikers is intended to be a play on her central theme of paradise lost. But why, having introduced a woman with two children who, during World War II, was betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, does she insist on naming her Sophie? Is this by choice? Then what is the point? Some sort of obscure homage to William Styron? Or is it simply inadvertent?
Like so much else in Original Sin, this detail leaves you wondering if the story is far more subtle than you are giving it credit for being or if there is simply less here than meets the eye.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1502
SOURCE: "The Snake in the Archives," in New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Malone praises James's Original Sin as a well-written mystery novel.]
The latest novel from P. D. James, Original Sin, is a portrait of Peverell Press, a venerable London publisher situated in Innocent House, a mock Venetian palace on the bank of the Thames. It is a complex, compelling novel with a murder investigation for a plot. Those who admire the book are likely to say it is "more than a mystery," but this fine novel needs no such excuses. How useful can our definition of the murder mystery be if every well-written instance must be praised by saying it "transcends the genre"? It is a porous form indeed if it can stretch from Charlie Chan to Crime and Punishment, and can include among its practitioners authors as various as Mickey Spillane and the stately Baroness James of Holland Park.
Original Sin does not zip by (the first murder is not revealed until a hundred pages into the story), but flows along in 19th-century style, wide, deep, magisterial, like the Thames that so atmospherically fills its pages. Indeed, as in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, the Thames becomes a powerful character in this novel. It serves not only to transport the players, hide the bodies and expose the secrets, but to place this narrative quite consciously within a literary tradition and a national history symbolized by the immemorial traffic of the Thames "bearing on its strong tide the whole history of England," from the Vikings and Romans to the great port of sailing ships and smoky Victorian bustle.
It is typical of Lady James to use a single setting (often a city business, rather than the weekend manor house of the Golden Age mystery) as a way to cluster her characters. In A Mind to Murder it was an upscale psychiatric clinic. Here it is an old-fashioned "gentlemen's" publishing company near bankruptcy. Innocent House (on the site of a walk that once led defendants found innocent from magistrate's court to freedom) is a beautiful Georgian building, four stories of glowing marble and a grand hall with a painted ceiling depicting "the curving river plumed with the sails of high-masted ships and small cherubs with pouted lips blowing prosperous breezes in small bursts like steam from a kettle." But it is anything but innocent, and never has been. Lady Peverell, the builder's wife, allegedly threw herself from the balcony, and her ghost still walks the bloodstained courtyard.
After a long first section in which we explore the private lives of all the major characters at the press, murder strikes. Gerard Etienne, the new head of the company, a ruthless bottom-liner (he's climbed the Matterhorn, and listens to Wagner), is determined to hurry the press into the modern age by getting rid of excess baggage. He starts firing superfluous or out-of-date staff (the first to go promptly commits suicide), and cutting form the list unprofitable writers who don't give readers the cheap romances and thrillers they presumably want. Even worse, Etienne plans to sell Innocent House Itself and move to a modern building. Is It any wonder he's found gassed to death in a carefully vacuumed archives room, with a cloth snake (the company mascot, called Hissing Sid) around his neck, the head stuck in his mouth?
Who did it? Claudia, Gerald's sleek and smart sister, who urgently needs £350,000 to buy an antiques store for her greedy, irresponsible, shallow and sexy boyfriend? Frances, Gerald's cast-off mistress, last of the Peverells, a lovely, gentle, pious woman, now passionately angry about his betrayal and fiercely determined to keep Innocent House in the family? Blackie, Etienne's faithful, eminently sensible secretary, now mocked and demoted to the periphery of power? Or another in the roundup of the usual suspects?
No one is better than Lady James at describing the particulars of police inspecting a crime scene, questioning the witnesses and analyzing the evidence to identify a killer. In this five-act mystery, it is fitting that the evidence should be literary: manuscripts, letters, diaries, contracts, archives. After a second and a third murder, the plot tumbles quickly into the open, even to a highway chase. It's appropriate, too, that the solution to the murders lies hidden in past events, and is uncovered by meticulous historical research. These crimes descend from the original sins of the fathers. And from brooding on old injustices, old betrayals, unforgotten, unrepented. "If God is eternal, then His justice is eternal. And so is His injustice," an Anglican nun tells Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the exceptional detective who has served as the protagonist of most of Lady James' mysteries. In Original Sin, murder is long in the hatching. "The tragedy of loss is not that we grieve," an editor at the press reflects following a funeral, "but that we cease to grieve, and then perhaps the dead are dead at last."
Lady James, a novelist of broad gifts and great skill, here is writing in full mastery of her craft and in full indulgence of her predilections. The staples to which we have become accustomed are all present in force, including the textually rich details of architecture and furnishings that at times work in support of the story, and at other times seem to emerge from the author's compulsion to describe all that her eye has seen, whether that is an Anglo-Celtic church on Blackwater estuary or the cool bare lines of a modern flat in the Barbican. As ever, Lady James, the grande dame of fictional forensic pathology, vividly renders the ugly reality of violent death: the smell of a corpse, the look of an autopsy in a sterile post-mortem room, the random residue of lives abruptly stopped.
Our point of view is beautifully initiated by the author's use of an "innocent" observer to lead us into the evils of Peverell Press. We arrive there with a young, sharp-eyed temporary typist, Mandy, and it is she who discovers two of the three murder victims. This "What Mandy Knew" view of Innocent House finds another Jamesian echo in the pivotal testimony of a Maisie-like, preternaturally wise child called Daisy. Allusions and symbols like this abound, and at times treated rather heavily through the plot.
Dalgliesh is back in charge, as dazzling as a movie star, but curiously passive. Far more active are his two juniors, who are sexually attracted to each other, fiercely competitive and convinced that they suffer the disadvantages of their minority status. Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, working-class, bright, hard-working and single, has sacrificed love to ambition. Inspector Daniel Aaron has sacrificed familial duty. His mother wails that "you'd rather be mixed up in murder than be with your parents." We hear a lot about Aaron's views on atheism, Jewish guilt ("You feel the need to keep explaining to God why you can't believe in him," he says) and Jewish suffering. His ruminations are not gratuitous, because it turns out that the history of the Holocaust is central to the plot of Original Sin.
In addition to the police, we are re-introduced to some character types we've met in earlier novels. Among others, there is a suicidal spinster and a garrulous, gossipy cleaning lady. There is, as well, some grousing about civilizations decline (shoddy partitions are ruining the proportions of classical rooms) and a conservative cri de coeur about current social ills and bleak prospects for the future. An earl's youthful daughter is as affectless as a mannequin and amoral as a cat. Adolescent vandals on motorbikes destroy the cottage garden of a minister's elderly widow. "My God," she cries, "what sort of generation have we bred?" Indeed, most of the young people in the novel seem to symbolize a callous modernity, devoid of loyalty, manners or traditions, that leaves in its noisy wake a number of broken victims.
The most dramatic example of such a castoff in Original Sin is an aging female mystery writer, who, after having provided Peverell House for decades with successful, if increasingly quaint, mysteries, is summarily cast aside by the ruthless new regime. "REJECTED—AND AFTER 30 YEARS!!!" Esmé Carling scrawls in futile outrage on her last manuscript Death on Paradise Island. When her body is found floating in the Thames just below Peverell House, it is easy for her former publishers to believe she killed herself; after all, she'd lived for the work they just rejected. But in fact the writer was murdered (an exploitable fact her trendy agent plans to turn to profit) because she had stumbled upon a real mystery far more dangerous than the fictions she'd created. Lady James treats this vain, hardworking woman with gentle comedy and compassion. "She had at least respected the English language and used it as well as lay in her power," Dalgliesh muses. "In an age rapidly becoming illiterate that was something." In the case of P. D. James, a far better mystery writer than her hapless Mrs. Carling, that is something indeed.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628
SOURCE: "Publish and Perish," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 13.
[In the following review, Ward compares the publishing world portrayed by James in Original Sin to that portrayed by Zev Chavets in The Bookmakers, and discusses how the two books work as narratives.]
As we travel dazed, anxious and weary-eyed in our airbagged, steel-reinforced luxury cars down the blurry Information Superhighway, authors continue to do their less than fashionable job of measuring what will be lost in the new age of the megabyte and sound bite. Writers remain, thank old outdated God, exasperatingly human. They are going to have their own idiosyncratic emotions about the new age, and they are going to be stubborn and old-fashioned enough to actually write (the fools!) about all this. Some scribes are going to deal with it all head on, like the Cyberpunk gang (see William Gibson or my own favorite, Neal Stevenson), but others, like the two writers we consider here, will see the historical opportunity to write about the lost world of literature and the death of publishing as a moral force in the world … in the popular form of the crime novel.
Neither the English writer P. D. James nor the American Zev Chavets is being drawn gently into this particular good night. Though Original Sin and The Bookmakers couldn't be any more different stylistically, they both show writers doing what they do best: saying "No."
Perhaps not exactly "no" with thunder. The crime novel, for all its promise of mystery and dark secrets and hair-raising fright, is too cozy a form to ever really upset anybody. Neither of these writers is out to offend anyone. They are simple entertainers, looking for an audience, but even so, both of them end up dealing with the moral bilge that comes leaking like a radioactive canister from the glamworld of big-stakes publishing.
Of the two, Chavets is from the laughing-boy school. The Bookmakers is clever, filled with farcical Westlakian plot twists, and even features a lovable midget hit man named Afterbirth. It's that kind of book, a cross between literature, "Saturday Night Live," and a Road Runner cartoon.
The setup, however, suggests a darker strain that runs just beneath all the manic activity. Chavets' hero, Mack Green, is a washed-up novelist. Though he has scored both critically and commercially with his first two books, his next two are utter failures and, as our story begins, he's practically suicidal. One night as he staggers home, he's held up by a mugger at gunpoint; it occurs to him that he doesn't care if the kid kills him or not. The mugger too is confused by Mack's attitude and loses his leverage. Seconds later Mack has disarmed him.
As he lets the kid go, an idea is born. He'll salvage his career by writing a novel about a novelist who takes a huge advance for a novel that he'll write in one year, the last year of his life—for once he's finished the book, he'll kill himself. Mack sees his big idea as a way to score, because "everybody wonders what he'd do if he only had a year to live. And suicide books are big these days. It can't miss."
Mack tells the idea to his agent, Tommy Russo, who thinks it's swell too, and together they approach Mack's editor, Stealth Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz loves the idea, gives Mack a healthy advance, and Mack heads back to his old hometown, Oriole, Mich., to gather up the proper You Can't Go Home Again details that will give the book the desired presuicide poignancy.
Alas, what Mack doesn't know is that editor Wolfowitz hates his guts, and is the sole reason that Mack's last two novels failed. The editor's fury stems from the fact that long ago, when he and Mack were best friends, Wolfowitz found out that sloppy but lovable Mack was occasionally sleeping with his wife, Louise. To repay him, Wolfowitz deliberately sabotaged Mack's chances by publishing his second book at the same time John Updike's and Norman Mailer's new novels were coming out, thus assuring Mack less shelf space and third-tier reviews.
Now, Wolfowitz sees an even better chance to deliver the real death blow to Mack's career. He'll hire a hit man (the aforementioned midget) and have Mack murdered. Then he'll sell Mack's new "novel" as nonfiction—the last, broken-hearted letter to an uncaring world by a beaten and desperate author. What could be better? Wolfowitz gets his bestseller and gets to off the writer.
The rest of the novel is Mack's comic rescue. What's interesting about the book is that Mack finds strength in the world he left behind. Each of the people Mack meets or rediscovers provides him with part of the answer to his problem, and not only the problem with Wolfowitz. In the end Mack has become a complete man, having found a real community—as opposed to the totally mercantile community of the New York publishing world.
There's no use making too much of The Bookmakers. Like Chavets' last book, the funny Inherit The Mob, it's a bonbon of a novel, but it's a tasty one, and though I doubt that going back to the old neighborhood would work in the end (isn't the old neighborhood itself being mentally paved over by the Info Superhighway?), it is a fantasy that most of my Los Angeles contemporaries revisit about once a day.
If Chavets' book is a pleasant snack of a novel, P. D. James' is a full-course meal. Unfortunately, it's the kind I try to avoid due to excessive calories and fat content. Somewhere in this long, dull novel there is a really interesting story trying to get out, but it's lost under tons of superfluous characters, and a plot that has the narrative drive of an elephant on Ativan.
As the novel begins we learn that the venerable publishing house, The Peverell Press, is under siege. Henry Peverell, the gentlemanly publisher, dies of a heart attack, and his position is taken by ruthless and ambitious Gerard Etienne. At the partners' meeting, Etienne announces that the company will have to be sold to a financier named Hector Skolling and that they will be forced for financial reasons to move from the mock Venetian Palace on the Thames that has been the company's home for over 100 years. Etienne is brutal and sarcastic and announces that he's going to clean house. The old reliable but dull accountant Sydney Bartrum will have to go, as will the handyman Fred, George the switchboard operator, and any novelist who isn't making money. One of these, an old fashioned mystery writer named Esme Carling has already been told of her fate and she's furious enough to kill. If that's not enough, Etienne has also offended Frances Peverell, the former publisher's daughter, by bedding, then dumping her….
And so on, and on and on and on. There are many suspects in Original Sin, any one or combination of whom might have reason to kill the odious Etienne. Eventually one of them does, and with him dies the real interest of the book, for Etienne is the novel's one really juicy character. Etienne is emblematic of all that is wrong with the current publishing scene. He doesn't care a whit about literature, conveniently labels anything that isn't immediately profitable "elitist" and is anxious to move into the corporate Big Time.
When Etienne talks to the other partners in the firm, all of whom long for the finer world in which publishers actually revered and felt a moral duty to publish good books, it's telling that not one of them can muster an argument against him. They don't like his crude thuggish tactics but are too enfeebled physically and mentally to offer any resistance.
It is exactly this failure to offer a debate that explains the entropy in James's novel. If you wish to make a mystery novel more than a puzzle, as it is painfully obvious James wishes to do, then you must create a dramatic tension between the villain's point of view and everyone else's. What if James had given us suspects with their own smart views of how publishing might move ahead, and still retain some of its older virtues? In other words, what if Etienne had run into a real adversary?
Both James and Chavets offer not so much a view of what's happening in the world of publishing as they do an emotional reaction to a very real spiritual crisis. James's tone is elegiac. She knows what is being lost: subtlety, real beauty, clarity. The dominant tone in Original Sin is that of an exhausted, barely flickering humanism. Chavets's view of the same spiritual breakdown is schoolboy-nihilism-meets-1930s–populism. In the aptly named Bookmakers everything is for sale, including book reviews, agents, editors and publishers. It's all one big fast shuck, and the best way to fight it is to go home again and hook up with some real people who haven't yet been infected with the virus of the age.
Of the two views, James' is closer to my own. Chavets is both too cynical and too sentimental. But art, even popular art such as both these books aspire to be, is a high-maintenance mistress. In the end, your political and social opinions only matter if your book works as a narrative. Chavets' attitudes may be Capra-corny, but his book isn't dull. James is mature, responsible, a finer writer with a first-rate intelligence. But in Original Sin, she forgets that narrative has to move forward and that even great villains need worthy adversaries. In the end she bores us, and that's one sin that you can't blame on the Brave New World of the flashy, empty publisher.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
SOURCE: "The Psychos Are Nicer Than the Lawyers. So It's True to Life on that Score," in Observer Review, October 5, 1997, p. 16.
[In the following review, Robertson asserts that James's fans will not be disappointed with A Certain Justice.]
'Come off it, Piers! Oxford degree in theology? You're not a typical copper.' 'Do I have to be? Do you have to be?' Not in a P. D. James novel, you don't. This is the place where all our policeman are wonderful. [In A Certain Justice,] Inspector Piers the theologian and the deeply sensitive Constable Kate (who missed her vocation as a Jungian analyst) are helping our published poet Commander Dalgleish, the Yard's philosopher-in-residence, to crack a murder in the Temple. It is coppers like these (and Morse, of course) who make English detective novels so inherently unbelievable. But they read well, nonetheless. Since P. D. James is such a fine writer, does reality matter?
In this book more than most, perhaps it does. The plot is set so concretely in the legal profession—the Chambers rather than the Firm—that it invites comparison with Grisham and Turow and the American realist school of crime fiction, where gritty storytelling holds attention precisely because it does have the ring of truth (whatever it lacks in literary quality). Sadly, this novel's allegedly contemporary lawyers are set in a time-warp, somewhere between the Notable Trials series and an early episode of Rumpole of the Bailey.
Venetia Aldridge QC is a clever, cold-blooded careerist who 'gets her kicks defending people she thinks are guilty'. So it would serve her right if the underachieving daughter she dislikes does marry the murderer for whom Venetia has skilfully arranged a wrongful acquittal. But one night in the Middle Temple, just before she is likely to achieve the prize of becoming head of chambers, someone skills the QC with a single stab, and someone else puts a full-length wig on the corpse and splatters it with blood.
The problem for our police—a trio the Yard could field to win University Challenge—is that Venetia has so many colleagues with a motive to kill her. There is the QC rival for the position of head of chambers. There is a senior clerk, worried that Venetia will replace him with a practice manager. There is the attractive female pupil much admired by the men, whom Venetia will veto for a seat in chambers. There is the ambitious barrister who fears she will report him for professional misconduct and so delay his accession to silk, and there is his wife's favourite uncle (providentially, a barrister in the same chambers) who just might have helped the family fortunes by dispatching this sharptongued Assistant Recorder.
I know fiction is stranger than truth, but this is all too much. (The notion that anyone would kill to become head of chambers is especially risible.) Some of the law is a little shaky as well: the book opens with a trial meant to be a cliff-hanger, but since the prosecution pivots on a 'fleeting glance' identification the judge would, in real-time, have withdrawn it from the jury.
This matters only if we take crime fiction seriously. As fiction simpliciter, the book is further evidence that P. D. James is one of the most spine-chilling writers around. No other writer (except Ian McEwan) brings out the terror of nondescript places where bad things happen, be they suburban homes or courtrooms or building sites or the coastal reed-beds where A Certain Justice has its gripping denouement.
Much of the writing's impact comes from its bleak pessimism—what Enoch Powell identifies as the true Tory approach to human nature. 'All human seeking after the good, the harmonious life … is illusory,' thinks one character, identifying the book's theme. Its psychopaths are more sympathetic than its barristers, consumed by mean-minded rivalry and obsessive selfishness. These characters are too unbelievably horrid, but the capped tooth of middle-class English malice has seldom been better described.
The plot ebbs rather than flows, however, with an unconvincing character introduced towards the end to unveil its key events through the stilted device of a long letter to a priest, which takes up 22 pages in the book. If P. D. James really wishes to explore the ethically interesting notion of a barrister taking responsibility for the consequences of her professional actions, we need to have those actions described directly and through Venetia's own mind, not as a retrospective penned by an occasional observer.
Still, A Certain Justice will not disappoint P. D. James fans. This Life it is not (there is no sex), and it is no less accurate than that television programme about life in chambers circa 1997—by which, I mean, not very accurate at all. At least barristers are more appealing on the box than in the book.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
SOURCE: "Who Caused the Deaths and What the Deaths Caused," in Spectator, Vol. 279, No. 8829, October 18, 1997, p. 48.
[In the following excerpt, Waugh praises James's A Certain Justice.]
P. D. James was an eminent civil servant during much of her writing life. I do not know whether it was on retirement from her job that a secret rebellion took place against the way the system works here, but it is odd that since she wrote A Taste for Death, published in 1986, no murderer of hers has had to face a jury of his peers in a criminal court or sweat it out behind bars. This could, of course, come out of a belief in good civil service economy. It is the taxpayer, after all, who finances the criminal justice system. So, instead, she dispenses with all that, and has her murderers die rather melodramatically. Oddly, this seems to give their deaths a sameness. Occasionally murderers remain unpunished:
Console yourself with the thought that all human justice is necessarily imperfect and that it is better for a useful man to continue to be useful than spend years in gaol,
one of them, who is not a danger to society, says to Dalgliesh. Could he be speaking for the author? Personally, I am shocked by the amoral pragmatism shown by Mrs James about the fates she bestows on her law-breakers. Despite this, admirers of her novels (amongst whom I count myself) will not be disappointed by A Certain Justice.
It has to be said that Venetia Aldridge QC is not a sympathetic victim. Despite being beautiful and clever, she has no friends. Although sex is taken care of by occasional meetings with a married politician, her life is entirely work-driven. She is irritable, chilly and acid-tongued. She has many enemies. Among them is her unhappy, boorish teenage daughter, who announces that she is marrying a young, clever, dangerous psychopath whom Venetia has recently got off on a charge of murdering his aunt. Even though this perverse pair of babes in the wood are at the emotional centre of the novel (the other characters are not nearly as strongly delineated), they are not the prime suspects when Venetia is discovered in chambers, sitting at her desk, stabbed through the heart, the barrister's wig on her head dripping blood. They have a very good alibi, having dined together under the unfriendly eye of Venetia's housekeeper. It turns out that every member of the chamber, with the exception of its head, Hubert Langton, has reason to wish Venetia ill, and since he has no memory of where he was during the crucial hours when the deed was done, he morbidly fears the worst.
How Venetia came to be such a disagreeable person is part of the twisted tale. Her father was a mildly sadistic headmaster and owner of a prep school, who terrorised his wife and daughter and caused the death of one of his pupils. Venetia's outlet from misery at home was a secretive but innocent friendship with a lonely, physically unattractive master at the school who instilled in her his obsessive passion for the legal niceties and intricacies of murder trials. Although this friendship ends devastatingly badly, the legacy of it is her brilliant career as a criminal barrister. What Dalgliesh and his team have to work out is whether it is her work as a barrister, her professionally uncompromising attitude to the failures of her fellow workers, or her emotional deficiencies that has led to her death. Then there is a second murder and the plot begins its ineluctable unravelling, leading at the very end to what I felt to be a certain injustice….
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1292
SOURCE: "Going Postal," in New York Times Book Review, December 7, 1997, p. 26.
[In the following review, Macintyre states that James resolves the plot in A Certain Justice, but ends the novel with moral and emotional questions left unanswered.]
For her latest murderous mise en scene, [A Certain Justice,] P. D. James takes us to a set of lawyers' chambers in London's Middle Temple, the heart of the English legal establishment, a closed and comfortable world encrusted with centuries of respectability, precedent and reasoned argument. There we find Venetia Aldridge, a celebrated and widely detested barrister, propped at her desk with a neat hole in her heart left by a letter opener, a sharpened replica of the sword of justice; on her head is a judge's horsehair wig dripping with fresh blood that, it swiftly becomes apparent, does not come from the veins of the late and unlamented Venetia Aldridge.
This macabre montage is vintage James: the language of ancient place and tradition—temples, chambers, oak paneling, afternoon tea—colliding with a grisly modern murder, inexplicably staged and defying logic. Here are intimations of desecration, of calm outward lives torn apart by inner violence: the genteel juxtaposed with the gruesome.
There are few more English writers than Baroness James of Holland Park. "The English … obviously regarded praying much as they did a necessary physical function, something best done in private," she writes. "A necessary physical function" sounds like the sort of euphemism one would find in the rule book of an English boarding school circa 1930, but it is precisely the contrast between such external fastidiousness and the complex, sometimes depraved internal lives of James's characters that gives her books such emotive power.
We know what is coming to Venetia Aldridge, Queen's Counsel, from the third sentence of A Certain Justice, when the author notes that the lawyer has "four weeks, four hours and fifty minutes left of life." Over those four weeks, James assembles the composing elements of her doomed character, the childhood and profession that have made her so successful—and so repellent. Aldridge is single-minded, arrogant, callous and utterly determined to further her career. She exploits the weakness of others with glinting disdain, seeing the law not as a mechanism of equity but as a test of intellectual cunning and dramatic talent.
Under English law, a barrister need not be convinced of a client's innocence and must withdraw only if certain of his or her guilt. For Aldridge, the distinction appears moot, for the more compelling the evidence of evildoing, the greater the challenge to introduce reasonable doubt in the jury's mind, and the higher the professional rewards of success. This is, James writes, "a lucrative game according to complicated rules … a game that was sometimes won at the cost of a human life."
Aldridge shows no evidence that she cares whether Garry Ashe, an intelligent young psychopath as adept at the game as she, murdered his prostitute aunt in a gritty and condemned council house. She minds only that she gets him off, and so, with a typically virtuoso courtroom performance, she does.
The moral conundrum at the heart of James's tale lies in the double-entendre of its title. Is justice certain in the sense of exact or immutable, or is it only a certain measure of fairness, qualified and incomplete?
"Most of us have to live with the results of what we do. Actions have consequences…. She won her victories and that, for her, was the end; others have had to live with the consequences, others have paid the price," one of her "victims" notes after discovering that the better the lawyer, the greater the capacity to perpetrate an injustice by enabling the guilty to go free.
Aldridge begins to wonder about the cost (if never the legal principle) of defending a man she knows is not innocent only when the acquitted Ashe takes up with her unhappy, unattractive and unloved daughter, Octavia, and thus becomes the first among a host of potential suspects when the barrister ends up on the wrong end of her own sword of justice, bewigged and soaked in another's gore.
In the best whodunit tradition, there are at least a dozen possible candidates for her murderer, each with motive, means and malice: her fellow barristers, the office cleaner, the sleazy Member of Parliament who wants to break off their mutually cynical affair, the schoolmaster who inspired the victim's taste for the law and keeps an obsessive scrapbook of her cases.
In less subtle hands these might lapse into cliché or caricature, but instead James leaves the lingering sense that each life is a separate embryonic novel, possibly irrelevant to "the case" but individually real. She sketches each with a few deft brushstrokes: Harold Naughton, the elderly and respectful clerk with his uncertain future and cauterized emotions—"When the children were at home, Harold got on well with them both. He had never found it difficult to get on well with strangers." Or Drysdale Laud, the bachelor barrister whose path to head of chambers is blocked by his female rival—"He and his mother had an affection for each other which was based on a respect for the other's essential selfishness." Or Hubert Langton, retiring head of chambers and once-great lawyer, losing his memory and control with age and bossed into increasing irrelevance by a daughter "in whom a certain sensitivity, acquired rather than innate, was at war with a natural authoritarianism."
James's people are wounded, compromised, familiar souls, whose quotidian frailties are exposed through an eye that is more sharp than generous, often witty but seldom funny. Around her central drama, James creates these smaller worlds with forensic precision, using incredible and melodramatic death to illustrate credible and movingly recognizable lives.
The one exception in A Certain Justice may be Adam Dalgliesh himself, the poet-detective well known to admirers of the James canon. Dalgliesh was always a feline and exacting figure, but here he comes close to being a token presence, appearing about a third of the way into the book and oddly distant and preoccupied thereafter. On the way to visit a suspect, Commander Dalgliesh (being an intellectual) is "struck by an imperative need to glimpse the sea," and once there experiences, somewhat bizarrely, "a tingling happiness, almost frightening in its physicality, that soul-possessing joy which is so seldom felt once youth has passed."
One suspects that the author is a touch tired of her veteran sleuth and may be preparing to put him out to grass: most likely a book-lined retirement, with a nice cup of Earl Grey and a consultative role in future mysteries.
In obedience to the classic crime-writing genre, James finally offers up the guilty party, resolving a complicated plot with impeccable logic. But there the symmetry ends, for the moral and emotional questions she asks do not admit of such neatness. "Human justice is necessarily imperfect," and in James's world there is no guiding hand of fairness to bring the criminal to the dock, the innocent to safety, the lost to redemption.
Langton, the old-fashioned lawyer with the addled mind trying to cling to a flawed system to which he has devoted a devoted life, still does not want to know who killed Venetia Aldridge, and finally he shuffles away from Dalgliesh, representative of some higher but still imperfect code. "Dalgliesh thought: He doesn't want to speak. He doesn't even want to see me." The two men are "carefully distanced" as they trudge off.
The image of a humbled law shutting out reality to preserve its rules and equanimity closes a book in which revenge is not quite sated and deserts are not always just. That may not be the most satisfying conclusion, but it contains a certain truth.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4183
SOURCE: "Inside the Locked Room," in New York Review of Books, February 5, 1998, pp. 19-21.
[In the following review, Oates traces several of James's novels and praises her A Certain Justice.]
So it is here at last, the distinguished thing!
—Henry James, on his deathbed
Henry James's famous final words might be the epigraph for the literary genre we call mystery/detective. In these usually tightly plotted, formulaic novels a corpse is often discovered as soon as the reader opens the book:
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life…. He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager; not for this lonely sea; nor for this death.
—P. D. James, Unnatural Causes (1967)
On the morning of Bernie Pryde's death—or it may have been the morning after, since Bernie died at his own convenience, nor did he think the estimated time of his departure worth recording—Cordelia was caught in a breakdown of the Bakerloo Line outside Lambeth North and was half an hour late at the office.
—P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972)
The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St. Matthew's in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged ten, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared.
—P. D. James, A Taste for Death (1986)
The Whistler's fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh.
—P. D. James, Devices and Desires (1989)
In A Certain Justice, P. D. James's new, fourteenth novel, the opening is given a stylish aerial perspective that suggests something of the novel's sophisticated variant on the old form:
Murderers do not usually give their victims notice. This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror. When, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 11 September, Venetia Aldridge stood up to cross-examine the prosecution's chief witness in the case of Regina v. Ashe, she had four weeks, four hours and fifty minutes left of life.
In this essentially conservative and conventional genre, form always mirrors content, and the principle of equilibrium that has been violated at the outset of the novel must be restored, at least to the reader's satisfaction; that is, mystery must be "solved"—or dissolved. The chaos and general messiness of actual life with which the traditional novel contends can't be the subject of mystery/detective fiction, for its premise is that mystery, the mysterious, that-which-is-not-known, can be caused to be known and its malevolent power dissolved. Of course, in superior examples of the genre, which would include most of P. D. James's novels, there are ironic qualifications: murderers may be disclosed, for instance, yet not officially identified, and not punished (as in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, as well as in the present novel, A Certain Justice). Often in P. D. James the morally reprehensible and the despicable, frequently accessories to crime, may prevail, to be capable of inflicting further damage upon their fellows.
P. D. James is expert at suggesting the complexity, often bureaucratic, that qualifies justice or renders it impotent. Born in 1920 in Oxford, she was an administrator for the National Health Service from 1949 to 1968 and from 1968 to 1979 she worked consecutively in the forensic science and criminal policy services of the Police Department. There's mordant zest in her presentation of bureaucratic claustrophobia and petty, and not-so-petty, hatreds among colleagues. Thematically, her novels are cris de coeur from solitary persons like the young private detective Cordelia Gray and the older, melancholic widower Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, who find themselves immersed in narratives that resist satisfactory closure; for identifying the solution to murder isn't the same thing as having enough evidence to prove murder. One can recognize evil but lack the power to stop it.
P. D. James's novels are known for their verbal density and near-static narrative movement, yet there are moments here and there of passionate lyricism in which the author herself seems to speak, as in this outburst at the conclusion of The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982):
Suddenly [Cordelia Gray] felt an immense and overpowering anger, almost cosmic in its intensity as if one fragile female body could hold all the concentrated outrage of the world's pitiable victims robbed of their unvalued lives.
The more disillusioned Adam Dalgliesh, learning he's been misdiagnosed as suffering from a fatal leukemia when in fact he has a nonfatal mononucleosis, in the opening pages of The Black Tower (1975) thinks pettishly that he'd reconciled himself to dying and surrendering the "trivial" concerns of his life, which include police detection. And now,
He wasn't sure that he could reconcile himself to his job. Resigned as he had become to the role of spectator—and soon not even to be that—he felt ill-equipped to return to the noisy playground of the world and, if it had to be, was minded to find for himself a less violent corner of it…. The time had come to change direction. Judges' Rules, rigor mortis, interrogation, the contemplation of decomposing flesh and smashed bone, the whole bloody business of man-hunting, he was finished with it.
(For "man-hunting" one might substitute "crime novel-writing.")
Less convincingly, Adam Dalgliesh, tall, dark, austere, saturnine, is meant to be a poet of enigmatic verse, a superlunary figure in the eyes of such female admirers as Cordelia Gray and his romantic-minded colleague Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, yet he is strangely lacking in spirit, intuition, and the sort of verbal virtuosity one might reasonably expect of a protagonist set up as, not an ordinary policeman, but a literary man with a modicum of popular success. P. D. James wisely refrains from offering us samples of Dalgliesh's work:
He didn't overestimate his talent…. The poems, which reflected his detached, ironic and fundamentally restless spirit, had happened to catch a public mood. He did not believe that more than half a dozen would live even in his own affections.
Like any veteran professional, Dalgliesh has anesthetized himself to shocks and has become in the process, as his creator surely can't have intended, something of a dour, condescending prig.
Tweedy Dalgliesh may be P. D. James's fantasy detective, but it's her female characters with whom she most clearly identifies and in whom the spark of exhilaration resides. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman young Cordelia Gray on her first case dares to commit perjury in order to protect a middle-aged murderess with whom she sympathizes—an extraordinary violation of law on the part of one whose profession is so involved with matters of guilt and innocence. Yet Cordelia gets away with it, clearly with P. D. James's blessing. Detective Kate Miskin, who has made her way up from a stifling, impoverished background, is both a competitive policewoman who takes pride in bettering her male colleagues at the shooting range and a covert admirer of sexually attractive officers; she's energetic, adventurous, and willing to acknowledge the complicity of detective and murderer. While her superior officer, Dalgliesh, broods, Kate thinks.
They were on their way to a new job. As always she felt, along the veins, that fizz of exhilaration that came with every new case. She thought, as she often did, how fortunate she was. She had a job which she enjoyed and knew she did well, a boss [Dalgliesh] she liked and admired. And now there was this murder with all it promised of excitement, human interest, the challenge of the investigation, the satisfaction of ultimate success. Someone had to die before she could feel like this. And that … wasn't a comfortable thought.
This is the complicity, too, of the mystery writer and her subject: someone has to die before she can execute her art.
It has been remarked that the genre of mystery/detective is as formal, or formulaic, as the sonnet, yet there's a crucial distinction among types of sonnets (Shakespearean, or English; Petrarchan, or Italian; Spenserian) and yet more distinction among individual, often idiosyncratic sonneteers. No American literary genre is more commercially profitable than the mystery, of which millions of hard-cover novels are sold annually, and yet more millions in soft-cover, in flourishing sections in bookstores and in 180 independent "mystery" stores, yet the genre itself contains subgenres of immense importance to practitioners and readers: if you're an admirer of American hard-boiled mystery (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly) you probably won't like American soft-boiled mystery (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Lawrence Block, Mary Higgins Clark. Sue Grafton, Margaret Truman, Lilian Jackson Braun and her cat-sleuth series); if you favor espionage (Robert Ludlum, John Le Carré, Len Deighton, John Gardner) chances are you won't like historical mystery (Ellis Peters, Michael Clynes, Peter Ackroyd, Caleb Carr, Anne Perry, Joan Smith); though if you like legal thrillers (Erle Stanley Gardner, Melville Davisson Post, John Grisham, Richard North Patterson) you may well like police "procedurals" (P. D. James, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell, Peter Turnbull, Thomas Harris).
Overlapping with these subgenres are novels of suspense, or thrillers, a vast category that includes writers as diverse as Cornell Woolrich, Barbara Vine (pseudonym of Ruth Rendell), Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Elmore Leonard, Dick Francis, Donald E. Westlake, Walter Mosley, Edna Buchanan, James Crumley, Michael Malone, S. J. Rozan, among others. In a separate category is Sherlock Holmes, the original sixty tales by A. Conan Doyle Plus "sequels" by other writers and commentary on the career and private life of this most famous of all private detectives. In an ancillary and increasingly quaint category is the traditional British mystery as practiced by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Martha Grimes, Julian Symons, Margaret Yorke, R. D. Wingfield, et al., characterized by genteel country-house settings, affably amateur detection, bloodless corpses, and tea. (The much-repeated query throughout P. D. James's novels, "Will you have some tea?," suggests the author's affinity with this tradition.)
As in a scientific experiment, the mystery/detective novel advances a number of plausible theories which are investigated by the agent of detection (in P. D. James this agent is a professional policeman, never an amateur), who discards them one by one as fresh disclosures come to light until, by the novel's end, yet ideally before the reader has caught on, only one solution remains. This solution should seem both inevitable and surprising—a daunting combination—though in actual fact, and this is true for P. D. James as well as her less celebrated colleagues, the murderer's identity is often anticlimactic, and as Edmund Wilson wrote in his classic grouse "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?," it isn't uncommon for even devoted readers of the genre to finish a novel without absorbing its ending or even remembering much of it shortly afterward. No literary genre (excepting perhaps women's romance) so lends itself to brainless addiction, for the reason that, while engrossing as it proceeds, at least in theory, the mystery/detective novel dissolves immediately at its conclusion. As Robert Frost said of the lyric poem, though the trope is more applicable to mystery/detective fiction than to most lyric poems, it rides on its own melting "like ice on a hot stove."
The classic structure of mystery/detective fiction is an artfully, sometimes a maddeningly withheld conclusion. The investigation proceeds by carefully plotted chapters, not directly toward its goal but horizontally and laterally, as in a maze. The chaotic open forms of Romanticism would be inappropriate for morality tales in which a principle of disequilibrium is always specific and identifiable. There's an inevitable airlessness to the genre, an atmosphere of confinement most clearly represented by the locked-room mystery (for which P. D. James's most characteristic novels, including A Certain Justice, exhibit an unfortunate predilection). In these mysteries a murder or murders are committed in a very finite space, during a very finite period of time; there are X number of suspects, introduced to us at the start, whose comings and goings and alibis must be minutely calculated. This is the novel as crossword puzzle, hardly as simulated life.
At its most excessive in the fussily choreographed Ellery Queen mysteries of the 1930s and 1940s, the locked-room mystery approaches self-parody. (See, for instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), in which every detail of a stagey murder scene is "reversed"—to disguise the fact, which only sharp-eyed Ellery Queen notices, that the victim was a priest whose collar was "reversed.") Yet even in P. D. James's skilled hands, the conventions of the form can become unintentionally comic:
Dalgliesh said: "So, if we're thinking at present of those people who had keys to Chambers, were there on Wednesday and knew where to lay hands on the wig and the blood, it brings us down to the Senior Clerk, Harold Naughton: the cleaner, Janet Carpenter; and four of the barristers: the Head of Chambers, Hubert St John Langton; Drysdale Laud, Simon Costello and Desmond Ulrick. Your priority tomorrow is to check more closely on their movements after seven-thirty. And you'd better check what time the Savoy has its interval, how long it lasts and whether Drysdale Laud could get to Chambers, kill Aldridge and be back in his seat before the play started again….
In actual police work, abrupt confessions and informers play an enormous part in the solving of crimes; in fiction, rarely. The informer has no role in the storytelling process, for the object of the story is not to resolve the mystery but to forestall the resolution for some two hundred and fifty or more pages. Obviously, the mystery writer's ingenuity determines the degree to which false leads seem natural to the reader and not transparently concocted. P. D. James is shrewd enough to both cook her data and appear rueful about it after the fact, by way of her hero Commander Dalgliesh. As when an associate remarks, at the conclusion of A Mind to Murder, a version of the locked-room mystery set in a psychiatric outpatient clinic in London, that the case which has been made to seem bafflingly complex as a result of numerous "likely" suspects was after all perfectly straightforward: the most obvious suspect, the most obvious motive.
"Too obvious for me, apparently," said Dalgliesh bitterly. "If this case doesn't cure me of conceit, nothing will. If I'd paid more attention to the obvious I might have questioned why [the murderer] didn't get back to Rettinger Street until after eleven…."
Dalgliesh can't tell us that, if he'd pursued the obvious, A Mind to Murder would have been tidily wrapped up in twenty pages.
In A Certain Justice, a variant of locked-room mystery set in a minutely described Chambers (lawyers' quarters in London close by the Bailey), P. D. James is so backed into a corner that she must resort to the narrative cliché of having the murderer boastfully confess to Dalgliesh ("What a pity for you that it is unprovable. There isn't a single piece of forensic evidence to link [me] with the crime"), knowing that Dalgliesh can't arrest him, and the novel ends with startling abruptness on the next page, as if both Dalgliesh and P. D. James were exhausted. This unsatisfactory ending tends to blur Dalgliesh's professionalism as a police officer and makes us question James's motive in so presenting him, at this stage in his career, as lacking the energies of his younger colleagues, particularly Kate Miskin. Unlike the sympathetic murderess of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, who has killed the man responsible for her son's death and whom Cordelia Gray manages to get off, the murderer of the clever defense lawyer Venetia Aldridge is a professional rival.
The art of mystery/detective fiction isn't an art of conclusions, however, but of suspension, and suspense. What appeals to readers in P. D. James's work is the balance between the pursuit of mystery (in fact, a fairly actionless pursuit by detectives among articulate and sharply drawn suspects) and what might be called her (P. D.) Jamesian sensibility, an introspective prose that creates a powerful interior world at odds with the exterior world that is presumably the focus of investigative mystery. Dalgliesh and certain of his colleagues perceive the world through the lens of a discriminating, often skeptical intelligence; these are cultured police officers with often impressive vocabularies. Even the cleaning women, as in A Certain Justice, may reveal themselves as sharp-eyed observers of the scene, and the psychopathic killer Garry Asche, who has killed his aunt, a prostitute, and whom, in a brilliant display of her talents. Venetia gets off even while she is convinced of his guilt, possesses "an I.Q. well above the normal" and a sensibility to match.
P. D. James is wonderfully skilled at evoking atmosphere, especially a mood of nostalgic melancholy, particularly in the many scenes that take place in historic old churches. P. D. James is also an indefatigable descriptive artist, sharing with her contemporary Iris Murdoch a passion for Balzacian inventory, whether of cityscapes and landscapes, the London Underground, artworks, architecture, interiors, clothing, or people. But her great gift is for the presentation of information in vividly rendered detail, as with the meticulous description of the inner workings of a psychiatric clinic, or of a nuclear power station, or, as in A Certain Justice, London's competitive Middle Temple. One feels, reading P. D. James, that a hidden world exists complete and mysterious before the eruption of a crime exposes it to outsiders' eyes; this is often not the case in mystery/detective fiction, in which sets may have an air of being perfunctorily assembled, as characters may be hardly more than names on the page, mere puppets in the novelist's hands.
In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, an early novel, twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray undergoes a rite of passage as she begins to fall in love with the young man whose death, and whose desecrated corpse, she's been hired to investigate, while living in what had been his residence, a rural cottage not far from Oxford. P. D. James doesn't merely trace the progress of Cordelia's emotional involvement, but allows the reader to participate in it, this "atmosphere of healing tranquility" so at odds with Cordelia's urban (London) life. In Death of an Expert Witness (1977) we're brought into the intricate, feuding hierarchy of a forensic science laboratory in Chevisham. The setting of A Mind to Murder is the Steen Clinic for psychiatric outpatients; in The Skull Beneath the Skin it's a rich man's estate on an island off the Dorset shore where an amateur production of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is to be performed.
[Courcy Castle] made [Cordelia Gray] catch her breath with wonder. It stood on the edge of the sea, almost as if it had risen from the waves, a castle of rose-red brick, its only stonework the pale flush lines and the tall curved windows which now coruscated in the sun. To the west soared a slender round tower topped with a cupola, solid yet ethereal. Every detail of the mat-surfaced walls, the patterned buttresses, and the battlements was distinct, unfussy, confident. The whole was compact, even massive, yet the high, sloping roofs and the slender tower gave an impression of lightness and repose which she hadn't associated with High Victorian architecture…. The proportions of the castle seemed to her exactly right for its site. Larger and it would have looked pretentious; smaller and there would have been a suggestion of facile charm. But this building, compromise though it may be between castle and family house, seemed to her brilliantly successful. She almost laughed aloud at the pleasure of it.
In Original Sin (1994), the most blackly comic, most Murdochian, among P. D. James's novels, we learn more than we might wish to know of Britain's oldest, most distinguished publishing firm, the Peverell Press, founded 1792 with quarters in Innocent House—a Venetian-inspired Georgian building on the Thames, "four storeys of coloured marble and golden stone which, as the light changed, seemed subtly to alter colour."
The new novel, A Certain Justice, is set primarily in lawyers' chambers in London's Middle Temple. Here the unsparing focus is upon high-rank London lawyers in their public and private lives and the possibly "just" fate of an aggressive female criminal lawyer who has made a lucrative career out of successfully defending guilty clients. Who could be a more deserving victim than a coolly beautiful careerist feminist who's also a negligent mother to a troubled teenaged girl, a demanding lover of a married politician, an abrasive colleague—and an unscrupulous defense lawyer to boot? Venetia Aldridge, fated soon to die as a consequence of her very success, is typically unflinching in assessing herself:
… It was only for the convicted clients that she felt even a trace of affection or pity. In her more analytical moments she wondered whether she might not be harbouring a subconscious guilt which after a victory, and particularly a victory against the odds, transferred itself into resentment of the client. The thought interested but did not worry her. Other counsel might see it as part of their job to encourage, to support, to console. She saw her own in less ambiguous terms; it was simply to win.
Yet Venetia is thrilled by her own brilliantly manipulating theatrical performances in court, all the more satisfying to her when she's successfully defending the sadistic young murderer Garry Asche, whose guilt she takes for granted.
Like the predecessor corpses in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, A Mind to Murder, and Original Sin, Venetia Aldrige's corpse is found luridly "desecrated," as an expression of someone's sadistic loathing: she's found dead at her desk in Chambers, stabbed through the heart with a letter opener yet doused in blood not her own, a judge's horsehair wig placed mockingly on her head. The last, intended, irony is that Venetia has been ambitious to become a judge, to the dismay of certain of her rivalrous colleagues.
For all the blame-the-victim subtext to A Certain Justice, Venetia is presented by P. D. James not only with irony but with sympathy. Her passion for the law, her work-obsessed personality, her mordant intelligence identify her as a soulmate of Commander Dalgliesh (whom she never meets) and of perhaps, P. D. James herself. A woman who (like Kate Miskin) has largely invented herself out of a loveless, deprived background (her father was a boys' school headmaster whose sadistic "disciplining" once drove a young boy to suicide), Venetia broods upon the past she should have left behind, not knowing, as the reader won't know unless he or she cares to read the expertly plotted novel a second time, how this ignoble past, in no way Venetia's fault, will doom her both to a brutal death and to the mocking desecration of her corpse by one who wanted "for her just once to pay the price of victory."
Venetia is thought-tormented, yet she often shows a lyrical sensibility. In one of her reveries Venetia thinks how "memory [is] like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages." Yet like her murderer, she's in thrall to memory.
It's Venetia Aldridge, too, who recalls Henry James's admonition, "Never believe that you know the last thing about any human heart."
But he was a novelist. It was his job to find complexities, anomalies, unsuspected subtleties in all human nature. To [her], as she grew into middle age, it seemed that the men and women she defended, the colleagues she worked with became more, not less, predictable. Only rarely was she surprised by an action totally out of character. It was as if the instrument, the key, the melody were settled in the early years of life, and however ingenious and varied the subsequent cadenzas, the theme remained unalterably the same.
But Venetia is fatally complacent about knowing the characters of her own colleagues.
Leaving aside the somewhat perfunctory ending, A Certain Justice is, in its economy, its relative swiftness of pace, and the complexity of its characters, one of P. D. James's most accomplished recent novels; it even includes, a rarity in this cerebral writer's work, several chapters of thriller-type suspense. (There's a subplot involving Venetia's rebellious daughter, who has been seduced by the calculating killer Garry Asche, in a romantically wild setting on the North Sea coast.) If the primary—and primal—function of the mystery/detective novel is to suggest a restoration of equilibrium after murder's violent assault upon it, this fourteenth novel of P. D. James succeeds admirably. P. D. James does not "transcend" genre; she refines, deepens, and amplifies it.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
Gidez, Richard B. "Selected Bibliography." In his P. D. James, pp. 148-51. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Contains a listing of sources by and about P. D. James.
Siebenheller, Norma. "Bibliography." In her P. D. James, pp. 145-49. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981.
Contains a listing of sources by and about P. D. James.
Campbell, Sue Ellen. "The Detective Heroine and the Death of Her Hero: From Dorothy Sayers to P. D. James." Modern Fiction Studies 29, No. 3 (Autumn 1983): 497-510.
Discusses the development of the detective heroine in the work of P. D. James and Dorothy Sayers.
Cooper-Clark, Diana. "Interview with P. D. James." Designs of Darkness.
Discusses with P. D. James the genre of detective fiction, the themes in her work, and her approach to writing.
D'Erasmo, Stacey. Review of Devices and Desires. Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 84 (April 1990): 10.
Presents the main questions James presents in Devices and Desires.
Ericson, Carl E. Review of A Taste for Death. Theology Today XLIV, No. 4 (January 1988): 550, 552, 554-55.
Asserts that P. D. James's A Taste for Death addresses theological issues about faith and experiencing God.
Finn, Molly. "Not Tonight, We Have a Headache." Commonweal CXX, No. 8 (23 April 1993): 26-7.
Complains that "The framework of [The Children of Men], all too plain to see, is never richly clothed; the numerous characters wander over a skillfully depicted landscape like so many sticks."
Foster, Catherine. "Taut and Terrifying Mystery." Christian Science Monitor (26 February 1990): 12.
Praises James's Devices and Desires as "a taut and sometimes terrifying good read."
Gidez, Richard B. "P. D. James and the English Classic Mystery." In his P. D. James, pp. 1-14. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Provides an overview of James's life and career.
Heffner, Carla. "Tea and Perfidy." Washington Post (30 April 1980): E1, E13.
Asserts that James's Innocent Blood moves away from the detective novels for which James is known.
Joyner, Nancy Carol. "P. D. James." In 10 Women of Mystery, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, pp. 106-23. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1981.
Analyzes the setting, themes, and characterization present in James's work.
Phillips, Barbara. "Uneasy Mix of Style, Suspense." Christian Science Monitor (25 June 1980): 17.
Asserts that James's attempt at "serious fiction" with Innocent Blood is not successful due to its intrusive descriptive passages and static characters.
Porter, Dennis. "Detection and Ethics: The Case of P. D. James." In The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, edited by Barbara A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler, pp. 11-18. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
States that James's "tales of violence and murder are nothing if not didactic; P. D. James has morally improving designs on her public."
Reading, Peter. "Terminal Themes." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669 (25 September 1992): 26.
Lauds James's The Children of Men for exhibiting the same well-paced plot and convincing depiction of character and setting which make her crime stories exciting.
Ross, Michele. "Dalgliesh Takes on a Publishing House." Christian Science Monitor (23 February 1995): B3.
Praises James's characterization and clarity of writing in Original Sin.
Rubin, Merle. "The Harsh and Somber World of P. D. James." Christian Science Monitor (31 October 1986): 23-4.
Calls James "a kind of 19th-century realist, committed to the painstaking representation of the texture of daily life and the peculiarity and uniqueness of each individual character."
Rye, Marilyn. "P. D. James." Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, pp. 167-70. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Presents a brief overview of James's life and work.
Salwak, Dale. "An Interview with P. D. James." Clues: A Journal of Detection 6, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1985): 31-50.
Discusses with P. D James her writing, the crime genre, and influences on her work.
Wood, Ralph C. "Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James's The Children of Men." Theology Today 51, No. 2 (July 1994): 277-88.
Discusses the Christian vision of James's The Children of Men and calls it "the most provocative novel I have read in many years."