When the subject of murder mysteries comes up for me, the greatest influence in my writing career has to be P.D. James. Or rather, Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park. Yes, the Queen named her a Baroness. There is a great background article for those who are unfamiliar with her work on her Random House website.
She did so much to raise the murder mystery to a level of literary fiction that the rest of us can only strive toward. She’s written twenty books, and for me, the one where she pulls out all the stops in so many ways: point of view, style, plot construction is in “Devices and Desires” All of her characters are multi-faceted, there at least five major view point characters along with her sleuth Adam Dalgliesh. She has mastered, what Donald Maass describes in his book, “The Fire in Fiction,” the ability to craft micro-tension, those moment by moment bits of tension that keep you reading from one sentence to the next. In “Devices and Desires,” Rikards, the detective investigating the “Whistler” murders brings Dalgliesh to the room where the Whistler has committed suicide in a room in the hotel where he spent much of his childhood. Here is how she opens the chapter:
“Balmoral Private Hotel was the last house on an undistinguished twentieth-century terrace at the unfashionable end of the long promenade. The summer lights were still strung between the Victorian lampposts, but they had been turned off and now swung in uneven loops like a tawdry necklace which might scatter its blackened beads at the first strong wind. The season was officially over.”
What she accomplishes in those three sentences is masterful. Not only does she place you in that seaside town, you already have a sense of dread at the thought of those light bulbs coming crashing down on you at the “first strong wind” The sentences are complex but keep you in the present moment.
Dalgliesh and Rickards examine the body, where the Whistler has cut his own throat. There has been another murder in town and someone set it up to look like it was another Whistler victim, but it is established that the Whistler committed suicide well before the latest victim was killed. It would be very easy to simply write the Whistler off, but here we see why Dalgliesh is such an intriguing character they way he balances the stark detective’s eye for detail, against his own introspection.
“…He came to this neat box of an execution shed, imposing on his mind as if it were a memory, the picture of a skinny child lying supine on that same bed and watching through the high window the same single star while arranged on the chest of drawers with careful art were the trophies of his day: the tips in pennies and sixpences, the shells and coloured stones from the beach, the dried swathe of pustulated seaweed.”
Dalgliesh empathizes with this serial killer because he is able to understand what it must have been like as a boy, to grow up in this place. That the killer had been a child, a child who played on the beach and who stared out a window and probably had larger dreams of what he wanted from life than the reality that life gave him.
These are just snippets from an incredible piece of fiction, yes, “genre” fiction, but who said you can’t fill genre fiction with insight into life and into human nature.
P.D. James is now in retired, she is now 91 and penned her last Dalgliesh novel, “The Perfect Patient” when she was 88. She wrote a non-fiction book, “Talking About Detective Fiction” where she traces the roots of British detective fiction, discusses the essentials of what makes good detective stories and why we enjoy them so much. A must for any murder mystery writer or reader.
Thanks so much for stopping by. What is your favorite P.D. James book? How do you think Adam Dalgliesh holds up when compared to more modern fictional detectives? I’d love to hear from you.