• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Inside the Locked Room

A Certain Justice: An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery

by P.D. James
Knopf, 364 pp., $25.00

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 UnsuitableJob 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 a 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.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print