Ah, P.D. James . . .
Unlike Christie, Carr, and Queen, and most of the other classic writers for that matter, whose pages I first cracked open as a teenager, I didn’t start reading James until I became an adult. And a good thing, too! Her world is dark and complex, and it moves at a more measured pace than your average Golden Age writer. Carefully and lovingly, James fashions a community set in a clearly defined place and then lets loose a murder bomb that devastates or destroys everyone in its wake. It is a devastation that continues even after the culprit is identified and punished, for in James’ world, “the innocent can suffer more than the guilty.” That is cold hard fact, the central truth of James’ fiction.
That said, I enjoyed a lot of her early mysteries in the mistaken belief that her goal was to continue the cherished traditions of classic detective fiction: Shroud for a Nightingale, Death of an Expert Witness and Devices and Desires are my favorites. It was with Devices that I started buying her books in hardcover, and ironically, that seemed to coincide with a sharp falling off in the quality of her books. They got longer, and they all took on a certain sameness:
Of plot – a community is introduced (publishing house, law firm, crime museum), the lives of half a dozen or so troubled people revolve around one thoroughly unpleasant sort who might as well be wearing an “I am the victim!” sweatshirt, they die, Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, much muck is stirred up, maybe a second death occurs, and then the killer is revealed, along with some long-past event that triggered everything. (Everyone in James has been scarred by childhood or traumatized by an earlier crime or world event.)
Of place – this is always listed as James’ starting point and her strength. She’s great at setting place, but evocative descriptive powers can only take you so far if the hijinks that occur within your settings don’t satisfy.
Of character – James peoples her novels with deeply rounded, deeply wounded men, women and children, but sometimes the vicissitudes of character get in the way of the story moving forward. By The Private Patient, the final Dalgliesh novel, the whole effect was of a lot of neurotics running around the place without much there there, a sort of Six Characters in Search of a Plot.
I know I’m being hard on James. I consider her a fine author, one of those few names where an announcement of a new book gets me to open up my wallet immediately. So I’ll just say it: I’m ragging on her for personal reasons, namely that her insistent desire to talk down and separate herself from the Golden Age of detective fiction, and most specifically Agatha Christie, has pissed me off. In her treatise Talking About Detective Fiction, James does not speak well of her predecessor. One of her nicest back-handed compliments appears in an article James wrote for the Spectator in December 2013:
“It is easy to criticize (Christie) as a writer, but someone who could provide relief, entertainment and excitement to millions of people throughout the world, in peace and war, cannot be dismissed as negligible.”
James decried the lack of realism in Christie and all those who wrote about the colorful villages of what Colin Watson called “Mayhem Parva”:
“There was this wonderful little village in which everybody, whether they were the parson or the doctor or the chemist or the district nurse or the squire, moved like figures on a chessboard — and this disruptive crime happened and then order was restored.”
Of course, style and taste is going to change. The mystery novel has become more psychological and, I guess, more realistic. One can’t fault James’ preference for a world of forensic detail and painstaking investigation into a crime, aspects of murder that blossomed in real life as Christie’s career was coming to an end. James is entitled to her opinion, of course. However, as a famous novelist who wrote extensively about crime fiction, she was known to be repeatedly dismissive of Christie’s talents, and those who interviewed her often copied that sentiment. James used her position to do some damage to Christie’s reputation, either by repudiating her quality or by excusing her popularity as simple, escapist reading for the masses.
Despite my belief that James has always been unfair to my favorite mystery author, when an advertisement for a “new” P.D. James book popped up on my Facebook page, I grabbed it out of instinct. Hey, I’ve heard rumors there may be a “new” Ngaio Marsh in the offing, as well. Certain names push my buttons!
The Mistletoe Murder comprises four stories that, according to the blurb, were “previously uncollected.” The book cost $24.00 in American money, although I admit I bought it on Amazon for $18.24. It arrived in the mail, and it was literally the size of my hand. A sprig of mistletoe dangles over the author’s name on the cover, giving it the finish of a holiday gift. Two of the stories feature Adam Dalgliesh. I have to admit I got a little misty at the thought of reading “previously uncollected” writings by P.D. James. Like I said, certain names . . .
In her introduction to the book, Val McDermid writes that James was “fascinated by the so-called Golden Age that followed the end of the First World War. But she was more than a fan. She applied her keen intelligence to what she read and developed a genuine expertise on the subject.”
This must refer to James’ criticism of Christie and her ilk, for she repeatedly separated her own style from that of Allingham, Sayers, and the like. Yet McDermid goes on to describe the stories in the collection, thusly:
“That love for the work of her predecessors is evident in this collection of her short stories: she picks the pockets of the mechanics of Golden Age plotting; Agatha Christie is referenced several times; and there are knowing nods to the conventions of traditional “cozy” mystery stories.”
God, I hate when the classic Queens of Crime are referred to as cozy! They certainly are not that. But that’s beside the point. Clearly, the printing of this book at Christmastime, in addition to providing an easy stocking stuffer for a mystery fan, calls to mind the annual “Christie for Christmas” that we fans came to look forward to at the end of each year. It also leads us to believe that we will find some semblance of classic methodology in the tales themselves.
So how do these stories fare?
The title story, which begins the collection, promises a gathering in a country mansion at Christmastime. The nameless narrator is a famous mystery writer who remembers an ill-fated Christmas in 1940, after the war had rendered her a widow. She is invited by her maternal grandmother to spend the holiday in the house where her mother grew up. The party is a small one, just the two women and two men, cousin Paul and Flight Lieutenant Rowland Maybrick, a “darkly handsome” antiques dealer whom the narrator dislikes at first sight. Thus, the scene is set for murder.
Only it’s not really. Oh, yes, the quartet dines together, they dance (“Rowland was a superb dancer”), and they make conversation of a sort. A cloud of gloom hangs over everyone, and in the morning, someone – you’ll never guess which one – is found “killed by a blow of immense force which had crushed the top of his head.”
Since the cast numbers four, and half of them are exempt from suspicion, it’s hard to maintain much suspense, yet it’s clear what James’ intention is here because her narrator states it outright:
“I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie, and you are right; that’s exactly how it struck me at the time. but one forgets, homicide rate excepted, how similar my mother’s England was to Dame Agatha’s Mayhem Parva. And it seems entirely appropriate that the body should have been discovered in the library, that most fatal room in popular British fiction.”
In comparison to Christie, this tale more resembles one of her stand-alones like “Accident” or “Witness for the Prosecution,” those with a sting in their tale, than an adventure in ratiocination to be pondered by Miss Marple’s Tuesday Night Club. Unfortunately, the final sentence of “The Mistletoe Murder,” which I assume is meant to pack a wallop, seems almost an afterthought after all the angst-without-cause we’ve endured during this wartime Christmas celebration.
The second story, “A Very Commonplace Murder,” contains not one, but two stings at the end. What this sordid little piece is doing in a Christmas collection, I have no idea. It’s all about a middle-aged file clerk looking back fondly on a time when he used to sneak into a client’s grubby flat to read his hidden stash of pornography, and then one night he looks across the street into another window and watches a real life tale of sex and murder unfold.
The clerk, one Ernest Gabriel, is suitably unpleasant, given his proclivities, and James does a nice job showing us how one sort of porn gives way to another, from reading dirty stories to playing the voyeur, to attending a murder trial and fantasizing of the part he might play as a witness. James then tries to pull the rug out from under us, but I felt that what follows in the final few pages renders senseless all that came before it.
The first two stories seem, for me at least, a pallid hors d’oeuvres for the main event: two stories featuring Adam Dalgliesh, James’ famous poet detective, in early days. The first of them is called “The Boxdale Inheritance,” but I recognized it immediately as a story with another title, “Great Aunt Allie’s Flypapers,” which has appeared in many a collection. This was the moment when I seriously began to regret spending so much money on this quartet of stories “collected here for the first time.” I had fallen prey to canny advertising, and I cursed my stupidity.
Nevertheless, even a sour ol’ Grinch like me can acknowledge that “The Boxdale Inheritance” is magnificent. In her preface to this collection, the author writes, “There is a satisfying art in containing within a few thousand words all those elements of plot, setting, characterization and surprise which go to provide a good crime story.” All of that is found here, plus a great deal of humor and warmth that goes well with the Yuletide season.
It’s easy to admire James’ prose, but rarely is it so funny! Dalgliesh has been appealed to by his godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, who has inherited fifty thousand pounds from his step-grandmother, money he sorely needs but is loathe to accept – because he believes she gained this money by murdering his grandfather. When Dalgliesh points out that Allegra Boxdale was tried and acquitted of the murder, the Canon replies that he fears that this was a technicality and that his conscience simply couldn’t accept money that was obtained from what he believes were nefarious means:
“Dalgliesh told himself that he should have remembered what, as a small boy, he had discovered about Uncle Hubert’s conscience – that it operated as a warning bell and that, unlike most people, Uncle Hubert never pretended that it hadn’t sounded or that he hadn’t heard it or that, having heard it, something must be wrong with the mechanism.”
Dalgliesh agrees to investigate a sixty-seven year old murder case, and the author injects his journey with sharply realized characters (most of them long dead) and a finely detailed plot, all imbued with a sense of nostalgia, that leads to a wonderful twist and a highly satisfying finish.
If “The Boxdale Inheritance” constitutes the main Christmas meal here, then the final tale, “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” is a mere trifle. James herself acknowledges its artificiality – and dryly reveals the story’s purpose – at the start:
“The figure who leaps from the side of the road in the darkness of a winter afternoon, frantically waving down the approaching motorist, is so much the creature of fiction that when it happened to the newly promoted Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine. “
That stranger leads Dalgliesh to Harkerville Hall, where the lord of the manor, Cuthbert Harkerville, has apparently committed suicide as a sort of middle finger gesture to his despised family. Yes, there are twelve clues, but in thirty short pages, James barely gives herself time to lay out the evidence and have the bonny Sergeant explain them to the local constabulary. It all feels like a rush job, and the explanation of the clues reads like the opening of a Sherlock Holmes story, where Holmes rattles off a list of facts to Watson about the latest client based on his appearance.
At the end, Dalgliesh finds himself enjoying a Christmas dinner at his aunt’s cottage nearby, where James gives another wink and a nudge to the Golden Age as the aunt asks her nephew what he thought of the case:
“’What did I think of it?’ Adam paused for a moment and considered. ‘My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.’”
Dalgliesh – and James – should only have it so good! If I were you, I’d seek out “Great Aunt Allie’s Flypapers” in some earlier collection and leave the rest for when this little tome hits the libraries.
Christmas stories – bah, humbug!