December 30, 2008

SO MANY GREAT DETECTIVES HAVE BEEN WHACKED LATELY...:

Read Her Books: a review of The Private Patient, by P.D. James (Larry Thornberry, 12.30.08, American Spectator)

Conservative TAS readers with a taste for the traditional mystery form will almost certainly like Mrs. James latest offering, The Private Patient, and perhaps any of Mrs. James's previous 18 mystery novels, which began in 1962 with Cover Her Face.

The 88-year-old Mrs. James hasn't lost a step. In Patient, James's 20th book and 14th Adam Dalgliesh novel, readers will encounter her usual complex story, rich with finely drawn characters and many credible suspects, some of whom relate to each other in complex ways. Mrs. James's work departs from mystery pioneers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in that her characters are believable and modern.

Mrs. Christie's stories could be entertaining, and some watchable movies and TV series have been made of her work, especially those involving Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. But her characters are mostly aristocratic and serving class oddments, presented not to be believed, but only to advance fanciful plots. Mrs. James's characters are real, and engage a real world.

The only clue for the reader to Mrs. James's age is her writing style, only slightly less ornate than that of Dickens but a lot less sentimental. And more precise. Her characters wrestle with the age-old problems of love and lust and fear and aging and loyalty and regret and greed and the place of money and work in our lives. Clearly the elderly and personally conservative James regrets what has been lost through the sorry cultural tendencies of the last few decades. (She was Church of England when that outfit was a vital religion, not the Feiffer cartoon is has become.) But her stories aren't wistful paeans to the good-old-days. She is a keen observer and chronicler of the contemporary scene. [...]

In England less fuss is made than elsewhere about the distinction between mystery writers and writers of, for lack of a better expression, literary fiction. Mrs. James is thought of there as a writer, and one of the country's best. She's not pigeon-holed as just a genre content-provider, which, with her elegant prose, her deft handling of character and place, and her intelligent themes and sure-handed presentation of current social issues, she has never been. The woman, who circumstances obliged to leave school at 16, has received numerous honorary university degrees in recognition of her literary work.

There's much unbearable lightness in the mystery section of your local book store. But none contributed there by P.D. James. Readers will come away from P.D. James's work with more feel for the human condition, and having had a more satisfying look at Vanity Fair as a going concern, than from that of any number of angst-ridden exercises in naval-gazing the current "literary" crowd churns out these days.


...it's comforting to have Dalgliesh back at least once more.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2008 1:27 PM
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