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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.