One ought to like P.D.James

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, April 16, 2009 ,

Tory Historian, half-way through Baroness James's last novel "The Private Patient" is once again perplexed why it is impossible to like the lady's late novels. After all, she is a conservative writer (as well as a Conservative peer) and one who is a practitioner of the traditional form of detective story. She has, indeed, been in trouble for expressing views that detective stories can be written only about people who understand the difference between right and wrong. She was accused of snobbery (presumably with violence, to quote Colin Watson).

Her early books about Adam Dalgliesh (a most unlikely police officer who is also a talented poet and the son of a rector) were controlled, well-plotted and extremely likeable. The first book about Private Investigator Cordelia Gray, "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" was, despite its slightly preposterous plot, extremely taut with excellent descriptions of Cambridge, its spoilt denizens and of Ms Gray, the dedicated PI, herself. In the second book, "The Skull Beneath the Skin" the seriously preposterous plot destroys the good qualities. Though Ms Gray is mentioned in one of the Dalgliesh mysteries casually, she has been dropped by Baroness James.

However, several of the more recent Dalgliesh books have been bad. They have all become too long and far too verbose with far too much introspection by all the police officers. Some introspection adds an extra dimension; pages and pages of it merely bore the reader.

Incidentally, only one of her police officers, Inspector Kate Miskin comes from the sort of class most coppers do, though she is actually one of the underclass who makes good. The others all seem to be upper middle class graduates with excellent knowledge of many things. A tad unlikely, Tory Historian thinks, risking accusations of snobbery without violence.

It's the plots that are the problem. From the 1986 "A Taste for Death", published after a longer than usual gap, the plots have steadily become more and more fantastical and less and less logical, achieving a kind of nadir with "Original Sin" (an unconscious re-writing of a far better novel by Nicholas Blake), "A Certain Justice" (where the original plot disappears into a memory hole to reappear in a completely incomprehensible solution) and "Death in Holy Orders" (where a young man commits suicide by pulling a great deal of earth down on himself). These were so poor that even the critics had to admit that.

The last three novels were an improvement. Let's face it, they could not get any worse. But they are still too long, too verbose and too fantastical with far too much introspection.

Ah well, at least they are wonderfully well written and at the end of "The Private Patient" Commander Adam Dalgliesh will finally tie the knot with Cambridge academic Dr Emma Lavenham. Even Lord Peter Wimsey took less time to woo and gain Harriet Vane.


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