July 2, 2020


P. D. JAMES: A CRIME READER'S GUIDE TO THE CLASSICSShe refined the crime novel to its dark, poetic core and created a roster of iconic detectives along the way. (NEIL NYREN, 7/02/2020, CrimeREads)

James' most important character was, of course, Adam Dalgliesh, one of the most iconic figures in crime fiction. The only child of an elderly couple, the son of a vicar, he lost a wife and baby son early on, and since then has led a very private life. He is also a respected poet, a fact that mystifies many onlookers who can't quite square one man being both a poet and a policeman. Dalgliesh also worries about it himself sometimes: "People tell me things. It had begun when he was a young detective-sergeant and then it had surprised and intrigued him, feeding his poetry, bringing the half-shameful realization that for a detective it would be a useful gift. The pity was there. He had known from childhood the heartbreak of life and that, too, had fed the poetry. He thought, I have taken peoples' confidences and used them to fasten gyves round their wrists" (The Murder Room).

James always said that she gave Dalgliesh the qualities she most admired in either men or women--"compassion without sentimentality, generosity, courage, intelligence, and independence" (A Certain Justice)--but some of those qualities can cut both ways. His detachment is both his strength and his weakness: "How long could you stay detached, he wondered, before you lost your own soul" (A Mind to Murder, 1963). His independence and lack of sentimentality make him prone to personal antipathies and occasional sudden anger, and his "cold sarcasm could be more devastating than another officer's bawled obscenities" (Devices and Desires).

However, he is a listener, be they witnesses, suspects, or his own team members. "This quiet, gentle, deep-voiced man," thinks one interviewee, "hadn't bothered to commiserate with her on the shock of finding the body. He hadn't smiled at her. He hadn't been paternal or understanding. He gave the impression that he was interested only in finding out the truth as quickly as possible and that he expected everyone else to feel the same. She thought that it would be difficult to tell him a lie" (A Mind to Murder).

These qualities, though, can also strike terror in his subordinates. When he invites them to talk with him about what they had seen and heard, it meant that he "now expected to hear a brief, succinct, accurate, elegantly-phrased but comprehensive account of the crime which would give all the salient facts so far known to someone who came to it freshly. This ability to know what you want to say and to say it in the minimum of appropriate words is as uncommon in policemen as in other members of the community. Dalgliesh's subordinates were apt to complain that they hadn't realized a degree in English was the new qualification for joining the C.I.D." (Shroud for a Nightingale).

What he hears, though, is key, and out if it will often come an intuitive sense that something important has been said. It isn't a "hunch," it's a certainty, and his team has to respect it: "Inconvenient, perverse and far-fetched they might seen, but they had been proved right too often to be safely ignored" (Shroud for a Nightingale). For Adam Dalgliesh, "it wasn't the last piece of the jigsaw, the easiest of all, that was important. No, it was the neglected, uninteresting, small segment which, slotted into place, suddenly made sense of so many other discarded pieces" (The Black Tower).

Posted by at July 2, 2020 12:00 AM