Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38
James, P(hyllis) D(orothy) 1920–
James is a British crime novelist. Characters and locales are painstakingly described in her fiction that is often compared to that of Dorothy L. Sayers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
(The entire section contains 5470 words.)
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- Critical Essays
James, P(hyllis) D(orothy) 1920–
James is a British crime novelist. Characters and locales are painstakingly described in her fiction that is often compared to that of Dorothy L. Sayers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91
["Cover Her Face"] is a literate and not unpromising first novel, but modeled firmly upon the detective story of 30 years ago at its dullest. No forward plot, nothing but 80,000 words of relentless (and non-procedural) investigation leading to the final assembly of all the characters and the unbelievable confession…. When I keep urging a return to the formal detective story, this is not what I mean.
Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'Cover Her Face'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 24, 1966, p. 29.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 142
To prove that the British mystery in the grand [Dorothy] Sayers line is not altogether dead, there is P. D. James's "Shroud For a Nightingale."… Mrs. James works in the old tradition. She takes all the time in the world to establish her plot, her people and her locale. False clues are liberally seeded. The author goes into the background of the characters. Some are literate in the best British tradition….
Mrs. James's style is ultracivilized, and "Shroud for a Nightingale" would be hard to overpraise. If her Adam Dalgliesh keeps up the good work, we will have a figure to take the place of the late Mr. Campion and—who knows—even Lord Peter.
Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large: 'Shroud for a Nightingale'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1972, p. 42.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232
Miss P. D. James is the leading present-day practitioner of the feminine character novel that is also a detective story.
By and large she is, indeed, the only member of her clan who has substantial claims to rank alongside [Dorothy] Sayers and [Margery] Allingham. She writes and plots, usually, with a gem-like clarity that compels both attention and admiration. Unfortunately in [An Unsuitable Job For a Woman] the gem is flawed. Private detection is indeed no job for the dear little thing who is employed to uncover the motives behind the apparent suicide of a likeable dropout. The atmosphere of suspicion and brooding violence surrounding a Cambridge clique of trendy youths is excellently conveyed, the background and switching scenes are handled with the same impeccable skill as ever. One is about to hail a minor masterpiece of the genre when, suddenly, the whole carefully constructed edifice collapses into an unlikely solution and an unsatisfactory aftermath. It looks, for once, like too-hasty plotting and one has, too, the horrible suspicion that Miss James is about to commit the cardinal sin of falling in love with her great detective. Let her beware and take thought of Miss Sayers who did just that and neither she nor Wimsey were ever the same afterwards.
John Welcome, "Quick and the Dead," in The Spectator (© 1972 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 229, No. 7539, December 23, 1972, p. 1011.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 104
[An Unsuitable Job for a Woman] shows what a suitable job it is for P. D. James to be a mystery writer. Her fifth book honorably carries on the tradition of the classic English mystery—literate, intelligent, with shrewdly observed characters and sound plotting—as she deals with contemporary university students during a summer at Cambridge, and the puzzling suicide of a young man….
P. D. James is a mystery novelist of substance, an acute observer of scene and character, and she writes with style.
Jean White, "With Intent to Kill," in Book World—The Washington Post (copyright © 1973 The Washington Post Company), April 15, 1973, p. 12.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201
Trouble with really good writers is that they sometimes can get so involved with techniques and style that they tend to forget the raison d'être of the crime novel. So it is with "The Black Tower."… Mrs. James is an exceedingly good writer, and her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is one of the more unusual ones in action today. Nevertheless, "The Black Tower" is so slow-moving that it will try the patience of most readers—and that has to be the besetting sin of a crime novel.
In "The Black Tower," Dalgliesh is recovering from a serious illness. He is on a convalescent holiday when an old friend dies. There are curious circumstances; there are poison-pen letters; there is a missing diary; and there is unfortunately almost a total lack of action for a good half of the book. It's heavy going, and one says this with some sorrow, for P. D. James is one of the better writers of mystery stories. Such previous books of hers as "Shroud for a Nightingale" are minor classics.
Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large: 'The Black Tower'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1975, p. 52.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453
[P. D.] James's Death of an Expert Witness is quite possibly her best book: certainly the characters are the most credible, the writing is the most controlled (after a slight lapse in The Black Tower), and the sense of rhythm is the most subtle. There is an unexplained red herring early on and the reader is told a little too clearly that the solution is buried in the past, in a scene in which a scientific officer examines a coerolith, the skeleton of a microorganism from ancient seas now found in the chalk of East Anglia. But all else is perfect….
Adam Dalgliesh is a sensitive, keenly intelligent officer from Scotland Yard whose growth is palpable from book to book; he is also a poet, and Miss James convinces us that he is a good one without making the mistake of giving us any of his poetry. He can quote Crabbe, the most English of poets, "and not only get it right but make it relevant." In the end the murderer forfeits the right to feel pain and Dalgliesh must feel it for the murderer.
James appeals to fans of Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie, but she appeals to fans of Ross Macdonald as well. Her sense of taste, even when dealing with the distasteful, is acute; her professional knowledge is that of a hospital administrator; her manner of depicting character is feminine, precise, compassionate and clear eyed.
Robin W. Winks, "Robin W. Winks on Mysteries: 'Death of an Expert Witness'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 177, No. 3281, November 26, 1977, pp. 34-5.
Miss James' work as a practitioner of the classic English mystery novel is often favorably compared to that of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham and the other female pioneers of the genre. The truth—as ["Death of an Expert Witness"] clearly demonstrates—is that she is their superior in almost every respect: a better, more sensitive writer, a more agile and teasing storyteller, a deeper, more cleareyed observer of human nature, human fears, human drives and aspirations. The story she tells us here has to do with an interesting (and expertly depicted) closed community—a forensic-science laboratory in a small East Anglia village. One of the senior biologists is found murdered in his triple-locked and delicately alarm-wired office, and Commander Adam Dalgliesh, of Scotland Yard—one of Miss James' most attractive creations and a fictional detective blessedly free of gimmicky mannerisms—is assigned to the case. His conduct of it is, as usual, flawless. (pp. 119-20)
"Mystery and Crime: 'Death of an Expert Witness'," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV, No. 3, March 6, 1978, pp. 119-20.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391
P. D. James's first omnibus volume ["Crime Times Three: 'Cover Her Face', 'A Mind to Murder' and 'Shroud For a Nightingale'"] will make clear why this English writer is cutting such a sure and distinctive way in a crowded field. Her style is what we think of as typically British. Her writing is ample, leisurely and full of loving descriptions of house and countryside. There is, in fact, a certain 19th-century ease to her books, as if she were inviting the reader to settle down near the fire and enjoy a good long read. Her people are educated, voluble and articulate. They speak faultless English; there is no low life in these pages, no conventional heists take place, no cheap killing merely for gain.
"Would you like to see the garden?" a character in "A Mind to Murder" asks Adam Dalgliesh, who is there to question her about a murder. "The light is fading, but we might just have time." Nor does the detective think it incongruous to enjoy the rose garden, with its hedges of yew and hawthorn and beech, while investigating a homicide. Nor is the effect lost on the reader as the two talk of murder in this lovely pastoral setting.
Equally, events are never so dire or matters so pressing that time cannot be taken for tea. In the middle of the most serious probings, one person is sure to say, "I'll make some tea." And rightly so. Making tea is one of mankind's most civilized traits, and the author is right in mentioning the cups and saucers, the china pot and the boiling kettle….
In spite of these domestic touches, however, Miss James's work is modern in the ambiguous makeup of her characters, their complex motives and the shrewd psychological touches of the relationship between the police and the criminals they pursue. There are no stark villains in her books, and not every cop is a paragon of virtue. In the first and third books, the victims are not very admirable; contrariwise, every reader will regret seeing the true murderer stand revealed in that first novel. It is a person easy to like.
Thomas Lask, "'Crime Times Three'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 7, 1979, p. 335).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242
There are a number of good things to be said about … P. D. James, but that she is a "new Agatha Christie" is not one of them…. I'm not even sure if James is a "queen of crime," as a further bit of well-meaning puffery proclaims her. However, she is without doubt one of the genre's noblewomen, and if there's anyone her oeuvre does call to mind, it's a fine author whose own place at court is secure: the late Elizabeth Mackintosh, or Josephine Tey….
To my way of thinking, what keeps both James and Tey just beneath the throne, as it were, is their good taste. They both lack that slight edge of eccentricity that enabled Christie to dream up Poirot, Dorothy Sayers (whom James claims as an influence) to concoct Peter Wimsey, or Margery Allingham to delineate Albert Campion. Tey's Alan Grant and James's Adam Dalgliesh are a pair of handsome, brave, true, and intelligent Scotland Yard detectives; one wouldn't kick them out of bed and yet … even though Dalgliesh is a published poet who's won critical acclaim, one can't help having a fond yearning for Poirot's less intellectually taxing vegetable marrows or Lord Peter's languid babble about incunabula. Lovable idiosyncrasies command a space of their own and have a staying power unmatched by characters who make do without.
Michele Slung, "Midsummer Night's Scream: The 10 Best Whodunits: 'Crime Times Three'," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VIII, No. 2, August, 1979, p. 31.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
There are two novels fighting for dominance within the covers of Innocent Blood. One of them is rooted—just—in the everyday world; the other capers about in that no man's land to which Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers made such frequent excursions. The former conveys something of the messiness involved in being human; the latter looks at crime through a dusty lorgnette. For most of the book, the two go their separate ways, but every so often they merge—with embarrassing consequences.
Of that trio who flourished in what Julian Symons has called "the golden age of the detective story", it is Dorothy L. Sayers who has exerted the strongest influence on the work of P. D. James. Sayers—the lady responsible for decking out Western civilization's sublimest poet in the sensible tweeds of an English gentleman—was a scholar, as her fiction constantly demonstrates: a tag from Horace, or a snatch from the Song of Roland; she was never at a loss for the frightfully esoteric allusion that added a touch of class (in more senses than one) to what, in reality, would have been squalid proceedings.
Miss James is similarly nimble with the literary references…. The famous lines from The Jew of Malta are deliberately misquoted for effect, and a speech from King John is put to use to bolster up an ailing plot. But the most tiresome, as well as the most awkward, example of this ransacking of the great books occurs early on in Innocent Blood, when the novel's principal character, the adopted Philippa, learns that her real father was a rapist and that her real mother is a murderess. How does she react to the distressing news? Here's how:
Some words of Bunyan came into her mind and she found herself speaking them aloud:
"Some also have wished that the next way to their father's house were here and that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over, but the way, and there is an end."
No, some words of Bunyan did not come into Philippa's mind—they came into P. D. James's. They came into her mind because she thought they would be effective. At such moments, the embarrassed reader is jolted into imagining how he would behave in the same circumstances. My imagination tells me that some words of Bunyan—or Milton, or Shakespeare, or even Ethel M. Dell—would not be springing to my lips. Rape—the rape of a girl of twelve? Murder—the murder of that abused child? Some words of Bunyan, for God's sake?
Philippa is a novelist manquée for the greater part of Innocent Blood—the last chapter sees her published. Now it is common knowledge that novelists are cold-blooded creatures who respond to life's ghastlier mishaps with an apt quotation. It may be common knowledge, but it is not true….
It is common knowledge, too, that if there is anyone colder than a cold-blooded novelist it is a male bisexual. Gabriel Lomas is just such a scheming charmer, who beds boys and girls with a balletic energy that does not conceal his lack of emotional involvement. Gabriel's nastiness is so transparent that one wonders how an elegant scribbler like Maurice and a walking Bartlett's like Philippa could ever have been taken in by him. He is straight out of stock, with his expertise in Victorian paintings and his eye for antiques….
The good things in Innocent Blood all belong to that one of the two novels which loses the fight for dominance. There is a brilliant scene where the murdered child's father catches sight of the girl's killer in a market. The murderess is laughing, and the desolate, hurt man hears her laughter and feels a sickness within him that registers immediately as the genuine response of unassuageable grief. Suddenly, after all the cultural showing-off—the talk of fine wines; the architectural knowhow; the saying-out-loud of lines by Bedford Prison's most illustrious occupant—the reader is allowed to mix with the living. There are moments, too, when P. D. James describes a recognizable London—the city of bed-sits, with lavatories that induce instant constipation. But, on the whole, the clichés and the culture win through. Since the majority of the clichés, and the bulk of the culture, are set down from Philippa's point of view, one is left with the opinion that she is going to be a bloody awful novelist.
It's a depressing conclusion to reach, for there are signs in Innocent Blood that P. D. James is trying to free herself from the constraints of the thriller and the grip of Dorothy L. Sayers. The main concern of the book is Philippa's slowly developing selflessness—a concern that sustained George Eliot's art, and sustains it still. I mention George Eliot because P. D. James does. Middlemarch—that most painfully honourable of English novels—is resorted to, as Bunyan's words are, as a short-cut to seriousness. The murderess tells her daughter that Middlemarch, read in prison, helped her maintain her sanity. And it was at this point in the confused narrative that, embarrassed, I questioned Miss James's easy seriousness. George Eliot helps us to stay sane because she bothered to find out why we go mad. She sent her imagination into prisons, and into the minds of the luckless. Each chapter of her greatest book is headed with an appropriate epigraph—but which reader, truly, remembers them? Miss James, dealing with rape and murder, with matters that bewilder and shock those of us who are still capable of being shocked and bewildered, trivializes them with cleverness, and with an excess of epigraphs.
Paul Bailey, "Between Two Worlds," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4017, March 21, 1980, p. 312.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795
P. D. James is a writer of sophisticated English mystery stories, the sort of books that abound with an intelligence the reader feels complementary to his own. Those who delight in such fiction do not ask for emotional depth or intensity of style, but for the reassurance that, even in a world of murder, insanity and intrigue, a civilized logic can prevail. Surely, a quiet dose of superior murder mystery is one of the liveliest, least sinful of addictions.
In "Innocent Blood," Miss James has written a novel vastly dependent upon the genre that she handles with such success, but a novel clear and true. It is immensely readable, bright, almost satisfying with its artful plot and careful psychological dossiers. The themes of "Innocent Blood" are respectably literary: the quest for personal identity, the irrational love and strain of duty between parents and children, husband and wife.
Philippa Rose Palfrey, a cool, accomplished young woman about to go up to Cambridge, decides to discover her real parents…. "Innocent Blood" begins in the honorable novelistic tradition of the orphan's search for the past, and Miss James's self-assured heroine is given full warning by the Government counselor: "We all have 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."
The truth is more bizarre than anything imagined: it is here that Miss James departs from the realm of the psychological novel and enters into the familiar stuff of the detective story. Philippa discovers who her parents are: Mary and Martin Ducton, housewife and clerk of no ordinary stamp, for he had raped a Girl Guide and she had then beaten the child to death. The horror of the parental crimes seems arbitrary. Like the neatly severed limbs and clever hangings in mystery stories that reduce death to part of a game, the Ductons' violence advances the plot. We are not made to care, perhaps we are not supposed to care. Martin Ducton exists as part of a puzzle….
The father is dead, but Mary Ducton is about to be released from prison. Mother and daughter accept each other, side-step their volatile histories, and begin an idyll, an interim life which P. D. James describes with a pleasant richness of detail…. Their freedom is false, for the reader knows it is only a matter of time before they will be trapped by the past. Norman Scase, the father of the slain child, is stalking them, tracking the bland murderess and fortunate daughter down to their hideaway, a contrived domestic nest with tea cups and plants.
Scase is the most original character in the novel. A lonely widower, almost grotesquely ugly, he is sweet-tempered, bumbling, naïve—a man of genuine feeling. "Innocent Blood" is a clever novel: the reader knows that he is being manipulated by the counterplot of melodramatic revenge. It is oddly exciting, for Miss James is accomplished at this sort of maneuver…. She turns the intricate form of the thriller inside out, a device that brings her novel perilously close to being an adroit murder mystery manqué. The story is ingenious, but not surprising. There is never anything like the playfulness of Iris Murdoch's contrivances, which tell us a good deal about the accidental and comic nature of our passions. Nor does Miss James give us the macabre world of Beryl Bainbridge, where violence lurks, tangible, breathing, within the bounds of ordinary life.
P. D. James is capable of handling her themes with astonishing clarity: not to simplify things for us, as in her thrillers, but to give us the crisp honesty of her novelistic perceptions. All the parents in "Innocent Blood" have deceived their children. All the children are born of peculiar or misguided love. There are brilliant touches of irony in the summing up…. (pp. 3, 28)
The curious thing is that P. D. James is gifted in the techniques of the traditional novel, can create place, gives great attention to significant detail and the pacing of her narrative, but seems to mistrust her own art and run for the cover of artifice. London is beautifully seen…. The city as she renders it is more than background, more than a movie set: vandals roam the streets at dawn, and so do enigmatic ladies in evening dress; it is alive with terror and good fortune. There is no need to tidy the scene, as Miss James does, with a perfect chain of events. The real mysteries are in the muddle of the daily continuum, and fine novels do not yield easily to solutions. (p. 28)
Maureen Howard, "Turning the Thriller Inside Out," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1980, pp. 3, 28.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
Oddly enough, it is the very qualities that make P. D. James's detective stories so good that undermine Innocent Blood, her first "serious" novel. The literacy that sparkles through An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the psychological insight that renders the nurses of Shroud for a Nightingale so pitiably familiar, indeed, the technical ability that has informed all seven of her mysteries are here overevident, too obviously employed in the service of an end that remains obscure.
The biggest problem is Philippa Palfrey, the eighteen-year-old heroine of the book. Unable to remember anything that happened to her before her eighth year, when she was adopted by a famous sociologist and his mousy wife, she is cold, self-absorbed, overeducated, and generally unpleasant. She is also prone to committing improbable acts, such as setting up housekeeping with her natural mother, a child murderer of whom she has no memory and who has just been released from jail (where she apparently spent her time reading Shakespeare).
None of this would matter—after all, many fine novels are based on unlikable protagonists, bouts of amnesia, and even long-lost relatives—if James's theme were compelling enough or her purpose clear. Unfortunately, too many secondary factors intrude. There are too many mysteries, some of them never adequately explained. There is too much quoting, much of it pompous and out of place. And there is a subplot involving a murder attempt that is far more interesting than Philippa's arrogant efforts to find love.
Innocent Blood does have one virtue: it clarifies the ways in which literary convention can be an aid to mystery writers and a drawback to other novelists. Neither genre nor straight fiction, Innocent Blood succeeds best when it is least self-conscious about literary form and most involved in the stories of individual lives—in other words, in the business of all fiction.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'Innocent Blood'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 6, June, 1980, p. 93.
Miss James sets a generous table [in "Innocent Blood"]: plot enough to satisfy the most Victorian taste, and enough violence and psychopathology to please an Elizabethan, or even a television viewer. There is strangulation, suicide, death by automobile and cancer, blindness, the rape of a child, the mutilation of a dead body, a battered child, sterility, a variety of incest, revenge. Plus a happy ending. There is also much fashionable rue, and the posing of a fashionable question: Is it environment or heredity that most shapes the human personality?… Miss James has entertained us often and exceedingly well in the past, but this long and high-strung novel carries the uncomfortable weight of "seriousness." Shakespearean tags drop from every tongue, and even the humblest characters are sensitive to art and church architecture. And the writing: "The minds of her generation were patterned like nursery wallpaper with images of death; violence lay around their cradles." Graham Greene has a lot to answer for.
"Briefly Noted: 'Innocent Blood'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 18, June 23, 1980, p. 101.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
"He ought to be writing thrillers," reflects the heroine of "Innocent Blood" about the novel's putative villain. "He had the mind of a thriller writer, obsessive, guilt-ridden, preoccupied with trivia. He had lived too long with thoughts of death." Whether or not this derogatory judgment is shared by the author of "Innocent Blood," it is certainly consistent with what she has done in her latest novel. For after writing seven detective thrillers featuring Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard and establishing her as one of the most esteemed practitioners of the genre in the English-speaking world,… P. D. James has burst the bounds of her territory.
In "Innocent Blood" she has gone far beyond the conventional limits of the whodunnit—or in this case the willhedoit—and written a novel that is subtle, rich, allusive and positively Shakespearean in its manipulation of such symbols as blindness, bastardy and flowers, and in its preoccupation with Guilt and Innocence, Good and Evil, Justice and Revenge and the competing claims of Blood and Environment….
Which is not to say that "Innocent Blood" isn't plotted. Most cunningly is it plotted. (p. 307)
Does this plot "work"? Of course it does—not only in terms of raw suspense, but also in its subtle manipulation of the reader's conflicting sympathies for Norman Scase and Mary Ducton, who turns out not to be quite the monster she first appears. True, Miss James's prose is too persistently analytic to permit the sort of accelerated pace that ideally brings a thriller to its climax. And if "Innocent Blood" has a glaring fault, it is that the characters talk too much like one another, particularly disconcerting in the case of Phillippa's mother, who even after spending 10 years in jail sounds as if she's about to take her orals in English Literature.
But if the pace of the book's second half is somewhat slow, we are amply compensated by the subtlety and elegance with which Miss James handles the parallel developments of Philippa and Norman Scase. When all is said and done, we have been held in tingling suspense by what can sentimentally be described as a young woman's discovery of her heart.
In short, P. D. James has successfully exploited the conventions of the thriller to produce a novel that far transcends our expectations of the genre. And if that sounds demeaning of the genre, let it quickly be added that it is precisely the tension between form and content that counts for so much of the success of "Innocent Blood." The thriller lives, even if only as host to a story that all but consumes it.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Innocent Blood'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 7, 1980, pp. 307-08).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825
P. D. James is a mystery writer who with [Innocent Blood] has abandoned mystery. She began as a writer of orthodox detective stories in the English tradition. Her first book, Cover Her Face, opened with a tea party, and offered fairly conventional characters in a rural setting. But this book and its immediate successors seem not to have satisfied her, and in Shroud For a Nightingale (1971) she used her professional knowledge as a hospital administrator to give a realistic portrait of the Nightingale Training College for Nurses. The Black Tower (1975) is set in a home for incurables, and the crime is investigated by a detective who has just been reprieved from what was in effect a death sentence, a diagnosis of leukemia.
The detective, Commander Adam Dalgleish, appears in her first seven books, but the portrait of him is deepened and strengthened in The Black Tower and in the following Death of an Expert Witness (1978). Yet although these later books are pushing to extend the bounds of the detective story, there is a puzzle to be solved and a murderer to be exposed in all of them. With Innocent Blood this apparatus has gone. There is the threat of violence, but no mystery. There is no Dalgleish. No doubt this is the serious novel that Phyllis James had it in mind to write when she began….
Innocent Blood shows among other things the risks of too much ambition. The puzzle element in a crime story has been a crutch for many. Chandler, for example, found creating a puzzle a bore, but the necessary construction work proved a great help in making the stereotyped heroines of his early books acceptable. Throw away the crutch and you stand on your own two fictional legs, with the need to justify action by means of character, not of mystery. And judged by its characters, Innocent Blood is strikingly implausible.
First, Philippa. An ordinary girl of eighteen, on learning that her mother is a murderess, might feel that she did not want to renew the family connection. Philippa's determination never falters, however, and in an attempt to make her very unlikely actions plausible, the author turns her from a human being into a quotation machine, a sure winner in any literary quiz…. It is true that we have been told she is a clever girl, but she seems rather to be crammed with facts, facts which she is dismally eager to communicate….
This is indeed a highly literary novel, in which even a private detective employed by Scase quotes Thomas Mann. What would mother and daughter have talked about if Mary, as seems more probable, had been an ordinary woman damaged or brutalized by prison life, not interested in visiting the Brompton Oratory to see the Mazzuoli marbles?
It is because the loving relationship between Philippa and her mother is essential to the plot that it is—not very skillfully—forced on us….
The improbability of the plot (with which the story's unexpected final turn is quite in keeping) is to some extent concealed by the intelligence and detailed realism of the writing…. Here, as in her detective stories, P. D. James's writing has a solid stylishness touched by flashes of wit and observation….
[P. D. James is also] a writer remarkably concerned with the details of things and places. The flat Philippa rents to occupy with her mother gets several pages of description, the room rented by Scase in a hotel is given a page, and so is the visiting room in prison. Often the details are strongly visual, giving us in Scase's hotel room the stained fawn carpet, a spot of dampness in one corner, the rickety wardrobe, and the dressing table "in veneered walnut with a spotted mirror."… Such elaborate descriptive detail has always been one of P. D. James's strengths. Through it she often succeeds in giving us the feeling of a house or a community, and of the people in it….
The book also attempts to get the feeling of contemporary London, chiefly through a concern with ways of traveling in it by public transport, especially by Underground…. This immense accumulation of factual detail certainly gives us something, although it's hard to be quite sure what. Although it helps to make the localities convincing, it does nothing for the people in them. The characters with whom the author is less involved … are much more plausible than Philippa, her mother, and the unlikely avenger Scase. Nor do the settings help the plot, which is made more jarringly melodramatic by the solidity of rooms and furniture. There is no doubt about P. D. James's talent, but on the evidence of Innocent Blood one must hope for the return of Adam Dalgleish in her next book. (p. 39)
Julian Symons, "Threats of Violence," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 12, July 17, 1980, pp. 39-40.