“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.”

The classic structure of mystery/detective fiction is an artfully, sometimes a maddeningly withheld conclusion. The investigation proceeds by carefully plotted chapters, not directly toward its goal but horizontally and laterally, as in a maze. The chaotic open forms of Romanticism would be inappropriate for morality tales in which a principle of disequilibrium is always specific and identifiable. There’s an inevitable airlessness to the genre, an atmosphere of confinement most clearly represented by the locked-room mystery (for which P.D. James’s most characteristic novels, including A Certain Justice, exhibit an unfortunate predilection). In these mysteries a murder or murders are committed in a very finite space, during a very finite period of time; there are X number of suspects, introduced to us at the start, whose comings and goings and alibis must be minutely calculated. This is the novel as crossword puzzle, hardly as simulated life.

At its most excessive in the fussily choreographed Ellery Queen mysteries of the 1930s and 1940s, the locked-room mystery approaches self-parody. (See, for instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), in which every detail of a stagey murder scene is “reversed”—to disguise the fact, which only sharp-eyed Ellery Queen notices, that the victim was a priest whose collar was “reversed.”) Yet even in P.D. James’s skilled hands, the conventions of the form can become unintentionally comic:

Dalgliesh said: “So, if we’re thinking at present of those people who had keys to Chambers, were there on Wednesday and knew where to lay hands on the wig and the blood, it brings us down to the Senior Clerk, Harold Naughton; the cleaner, Janet Carpenter; and four of the barristers: the Head of Chambers, Hubert St John Langton; Drysdale Laud, Simon Costello and Desmond Ulrick. Your priority tomorrow is to check more closely on their movements after seven-thirty. And you’d better check what time the Savoy has its interval, how long it lasts and whether Drysdale Laud could get to Chambers, kill Aldridge and be back in his seat before the play started again….

In actual police work, abrupt confessions and informers play an enormous part in the solving of crimes; in fiction, rarely. The informer has no role in the storytelling process, for the object of the story is not to resolve the mystery but to forestall the resolution for some two hundred and fifty or more pages. Obviously, the mystery writer’s ingenuity determines the degree to which false leads seem natural to the reader and not transparently concocted. P.D. James is shrewd enough to both cook her data and appear rueful about it after the fact, by way of her hero Commander Dalgliesh. As when an associate remarks, at the conclusion of A Mind to Murder, a version of the locked-room mystery set in a psychiatric outpatient clinic in London, that the case which has been made to seem bafflingly complex as a result of numerous “likely” suspects was after all perfectly straightforward: the most obvious suspect, the most obvious motive.

“Too obvious for me, apparently,” said Dalgliesh bitterly. “If this case doesn’t cure me of conceit, nothing will. If I’d paid more attention to the obvious I might have questioned why [the murderer] didn’t get back to Rettinger Street until after eleven….”

Dalgliesh can’t tell us that, if he’d pursued the obvious, A Mind to Murder would have been tidily wrapped up in twenty pages.

In A Certain Justice, a variant of locked-room mystery set in a minutely described Chambers (lawyers’ quarters in London close by the Bailey), P.D. James is so backed into a corner that she must resort to the narrative cliché of having the murderer boastfully confess to Dalgliesh (“What a pity for you that it is unprovable. There isn’t a single piece of forensic evidence to link [me] with the crime”), knowing that Dalgliesh can’t arrest him, and the novel ends with startling abruptness on the next page, as if both Dalgliesh and P.D. James were exhausted. This unsatisfactory ending tends to blur Dalgliesh’s professionalism as a police officer and makes us question James’s motive in so presenting him, at this stage in his career, as lacking the energies of his younger colleagues, particularly Kate Miskin. Unlike the sympathetic murderess of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, who has killed the man responsible for her son’s death and whom Cordelia Gray manages to get off, the murderer of the clever defense lawyer Venetia Aldridge is a professional rival.

The art of mystery/detective fiction isn’t an art of conclusions, however, but of suspension, and suspense. What appeals to readers in P.D. James’s work is the balance between the pursuit of mystery (in fact, a fairly actionless pursuit by detectives among articulate and sharply drawn suspects) and what might be called her (P.D.) Jamesian sensibility, an introspective prose that creates a powerful interior world at odds with the exterior world that is presumably the focus of investigative mystery. Dalgliesh and certain of his colleagues perceive the world through the lens of a discriminating, often skeptical intelligence; these are cultured police officers with often impressive vocabularies. Even the cleaning women, as in A Certain Justice, may reveal themselves as sharp-eyed observers of the scene, and the psychopathic killer Garry Asche, who has killed his aunt, a prostitute, and whom, in a brilliant display of her talents, Venetia gets off even while she is convinced of his guilt, possesses “an I.Q. well above the normal” and a sensibility to match.

P.D. James is wonderfully skilled at evoking atmosphere, especially a mood of nostalgic melancholy, particularly in the many scenes that take place in historic old churches. P.D. James is also an indefatigable descriptive artist, sharing with her contemporary Iris Murdoch a passion for Balzacian inventory, whether of cityscapes and landscapes, the London Underground, artworks, architecture, interiors, clothing, or people. But her great gift is for the presentation of information in vividly rendered detail, as with the meticulous description of the inner workings of a psychiatric clinic, or of a nuclear power station, or, as in A Certain Justice, London’s competitive Middle Temple. One feels, reading P.D. James, that a hidden world exists complete and mysterious before the eruption of a crime exposes it to outsiders’ eyes; this is often not the case in mystery/detective fiction, in which sets may have an air of being perfunctorily assembled, as characters may be hardly more than names on the page, mere puppets in the novelist’s hands.

In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, an early novel, twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray undergoes a rite of passage as she begins to fall in love with the young man whose death, and whose desecrated corpse, she’s been hired to investigate, while living in what had been his residence, a rural cottage not far from Oxford. P.D. James doesn’t merely trace the progress of Cordelia’s emotional involvement, but allows the reader to participate in it, this “atmosphere of healing tranquility” so at odds with Cordelia’s urban (London) life. In Death of an Expert Witness (1977) we’re brought into the intricate, feuding hierarchy of a forensic science laboratory in Chevisham. The setting of A Mind to Murder is the Steen Clinic for psychiatric outpatients; in The Skull Beneath the Skin it’s a rich man’s estate on an island off the Dorset shore where an amateur production of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is to be performed.

[Courcy Castle] made [Cordelia Gray] catch her breath with wonder. It stood on the edge of the sea, almost as if it had risen from the waves, a castle of rose-red brick, its only stonework the pale flush lines and the tall curved windows which now coruscated in the sun. To the west soared a slender round tower topped with a cupola, solid yet ethereal. Every detail of the mat-surfaced walls, the patterned buttresses, and the battlements was distinct, unfussy, confident. The whole was compact, even massive, yet the high, sloping roofs and the slender tower gave an impression of lightness and repose which she hadn’t associated with High Victorian architecture…. The proportions of the castle seemed to her exactly right for its site. Larger and it would have looked pretentious; smaller and there would have been a suggestion of facile charm. But this building, compromise though it may be between castle and family house, seemed to her brilliantly successful. She almost laughed aloud at the pleasure of it.

In Original Sin (1994), the most blackly comic, most Murdochian, among P.D. James’s novels, we learn more than we might wish to know of Britain’s oldest, most distinguished publishing firm, the Peverell Press, founded 1792 with quarters in Innocent House—a Venetian-inspired Georgian building on the Thames, “four storeys of coloured marble and golden stone which, as the light changed, seemed subtly to alter colour.”

The new novel, A Certain Justice, is set primarily in lawyers’ chambers in London’s Middle Temple. Here the unsparing focus is upon high-rank London lawyers in their public and private lives and the possibly “just” fate of an aggressive female criminal lawyer who has made a lucrative career out of successfully defending guilty clients. Who could be a more deserving victim than a coolly beautiful careerist feminist who’s also a negligent mother to a troubled teenaged girl, a demanding lover of a married politician, an abrasive colleague—and an unscrupulous defense lawyer to boot? Venetia Aldridge, fated soon to die as a consequence of her very success, is typically unflinching in assessing herself:

…It was only for the convicted clients that she felt even a trace of affection or pity. In her more analytical moments she wondered whether she might not be harbouring a subconscious guilt which after a victory, and particularly a victory against the odds, transferred itself into resentment of the client. The thought interested but did not worry her. Other counsel might see it as part of their job to encourage, to support, to console. She saw her own in less ambiguous terms; it was simply to win.

Yet Venetia is thrilled by her own brilliantly manipulating theatrical performances in court, all the more satisfying to her when she’s successfully defending the sadistic young murderer Garry Asche, whose guilt she takes for granted.

Like the predecessor corpses in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, A Mind to Murder, and Original Sin, Venetia Aldrige’s corpse is found luridly “desecrated,” as an expression of someone’s sadistic loathing: she’s found dead at her desk in Chambers, stabbed through the heart with a letter opener yet doused in blood not her own, a judge’s horsehair wig placed mockingly on her head. The last, intended, irony is that Venetia has been ambitious to become a judge, to the dismay of certain of her rivalrous colleagues.

For all the blame-the-victim subtext to A Certain Justice, Venetia is presented by P.D. James not only with irony but with sympathy. Her passion for the law, her work-obsessed personality, her mordant intelligence identify her as a soulmate of Commander Dalgliesh (whom she never meets) and of, perhaps, P.D. James herself. A woman who (like Kate Miskin) has largely invented herself out of a loveless, deprived background (her father was a boys’ school headmaster whose sadistic “disciplining” once drove a young boy to suicide), Venetia broods upon the past she should have left behind, not knowing, as the reader won’t know unless he or she cares to read the expertly plotted novel a second time, how this ignoble past, in no way Venetia’s fault, will doom her both to a brutal death and to the mocking desecration of her corpse by one who wanted “for her just once to pay the price of victory.”

Venetia is thought-tormented, yet she often shows a lyrical sensibility. In one of her reveries Venetia thinks how “memory [is] like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.” Yet like her murderer, she’s in thrall to memory.

It’s Venetia Aldridge, too, who recalls Henry James’s admonition, “Never believe that you know the last thing about any human heart.”

But he was a novelist. It was his job to find complexities, anomalies, unsuspected subtleties in all human nature. To [her], as she grew into middle age, it seemed that the men and women she defended, the colleagues she worked with became more, not less, predictable. Only rarely was she surprised by an action totally out of character. It was as if the instrument, the key, the melody were settled in the early years of life, and however ingenious and varied the subsequent cadenzas, the theme remained unalterably the same.

But Venetia is fatally complacent about knowing the characters of her own colleagues.

Leaving aside the somewhat perfunctory ending, A Certain Justice is, in its economy, its relative swiftness of pace, and the complexity of its characters, one of P.D. James’s most accomplished recent novels; it even includes, a rarity in this cerebral writer’s work, several chapters of thriller-type suspense. (There’s a subplot involving Venetia’s rebellious daughter, who has been seduced by the calculating killer Garry Asche, in a romantically wild setting on the North Sea coast.) If the primary—and primal—function of the mystery/detective novel is to suggest a restoration of equilibrium after murder’s violent assault upon it, this fourteenth novel of P.D. James succeeds admirably. P.D. James does not “transcend” genre; she refines, deepens, and amplifies it.

This Issue

February 5, 1998