Devices and Desires
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 some-how 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 grand-mother. 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 …