Friday, May 14, 2010

Maybe I Don't 'Get' P.D. James

I've lost count of the women in my family and personal life who read P.D. James, but sometimes it seems like all of them do. This can be a boon when visiting during holidays: no matter which family member's house you stay in, there's bound to be something on their shelf you can enjoy reading. But I'm not really sure if I understand P.D. James. I wonder if I've mistaken her intent. I didn't even like her damn books to begin with.

It's easy to be confused by James. There's the name thing, after all. For most people, "P.D. James" might conjure dustjacket visions of either a herringbone-clad male type — all cheekbones and crow's feet, theatrically standing before his bookshelves, arms folded — or maybe someone with a belly who's decided on an amply sweatered existence. Maybe the profusion of initialed male authors clouds the issue, or maybe the "James," which reminds one of James Patterson, another mystery writer. Personally, I'm going to name my next dog P.D. James. This isn't a comment on the looks of Ms. James, of which I'm unaware at this moment, but rather because I think P.D. James is an awesome dog name. I'd probably wind up calling him "Petey" most of the time, but having a dog bowl or bed with "P.D. James" on it seems cool. I'm going to do this.

Then, of course, there's Children of Men. James is known primarily for her mannerly British detective stories about mannerly British detective Adam Dalgliesh, who spends his time around mannerly people — one of whom, invariably, has killed someone in a breach of etiquette. She's written roughly a dozen of these books, and they all have the same atmosphere and general topics. Children of Men, however, is a dystopian novel about an authoritarian Britain, set over 20 years into an epidemic of global male infertility. Although it differs from the movie based on it, it describes a state in which civil rights have disappeared and those doomed and childless are encouraged to distract themselves with empty entertainments, assuming they don't opt for sanctioned suicide. It isn't a bad book by any means — it's quite good, actually — but it presents such a confusing departure from her oeuvre. It'd be like picking up a John Grisham novel (assuming, for our purposes, that Grisham was a decent writer to begin with) that ignored the law and instead focused on a young mixed-race girl growing up in a South African town in the 1980s.

Finally, I wasn't sure what to make of James even when I read one of the books within her established wheelhouse. Aside from those who offhandedly dismiss all genre novels as substandard by dint of topic, there are very few people who would not describe James as an artist. The procedural subject of her books might relegate her to the first rank of the second-raters, but her popularity and accessibility mean that she's able to present social commentary and serious prose craftsmanship to even unsuspecting readers out for an entertainment. All the same, I didn't really like the first novel of hers I read.

The hero for most of her books, Adam Dalgliesh, presents another variation on the classic British Gentleman Detective, combined with a little wish fulfillment. An Anglican of good schooling, Dalgliesh worked his way up from beat cop to Commander, finding himself heading a detail of fellow coppers who help him tackle sensitive and important cases. Dalgliesh is a widower and owes part of his detached and nearly omniscient observance to his withdrawal from life after his wife's death in childbirth. Those miseries aside, he's intellectually passionate, a recognized and published poet. Between the parallels to James' biography and also the unhappiness in her personal life (her husband suffered severe "battle exhaustion" following the Second World War), it's easy to see Dalgliesh as the Ideal Man for P.D. James — i.e. P.D. James as a man. He seemed insufferable to me after only a few pages.

I've never particularly cared for the British Gentleman Detective. I have several reasons, but wish fulfillment is probably the largest one. Take Inspector Morse, subject of a popular series of novels and TV shows. He's both the ideal middle- and upper-class boy. He's born middle-class, but makes it to Oxford on scholarship. He eventually drops out because of a doomed love affair, goes into the army and becomes a copper. He drinks his ale and is a success with women, but he also spends time alone listening to opera and doing complex crosswords. He can speak the language of the street, but corrects everyone's spelling. He earns a cop salary, but drives a classic Jaguar. He's what a marketing team might create to capitalize on the maximum number of British class interests with disposable income, all these contradictory tics in one package, with a slick car whose affordability is best left unquestioned. Anyone who's not a laborer will see themselves in him, maybe buy the book or, now, the DVD.

Dalgliesh is of a piece with this sort of characterization. He's worked his way up from the bottom in the police, but he has a good background and lives comfortably in London. Despite a lower-class occupation, he moves easily among high society figures because of his excellent manners, and if anyone were to question his presence among them, it's easy to explain away with his famous published lyrics. His unflappability suggests a gentlemanly restraint that verges on a kind of conceptual patness.

The first Dalgliesh novel I read was one I borrowed from family: Devices and Desires. I remember picking it up and thinking about how summarily contrived the title seemed, instantly wondering what the runners-up were. Like:
Machinations and Motives
Intrigues and Impulses
Tactics and Temptations
Affectations and Ambitions
Given the right thesaurus, you could go on to an alliterative dawn.

As the book opens, Dalgliesh is headed to the Norfolk coast to take possession of a dead aunt's house that has been bequeathed to him, an old windmill converted into a kind of novelty cottage. In the weeks prior to his arrival, the surrounding hamlets have been terrified by a serial killer named The Whistler, who whistles hymns in the night before killing people and stuffing their mouths with pubic hair. Shortly after Dalgliesh arrives, there's another murder, seemingly the work of The Whistler. Because of the pubic hair.

Although it's not his jurisdiction, Dalgliesh becomes involved in the investigation, working somewhat accidentally alongside a local constable. For the most part, however, he's just there. He meets a group of deeply obnoxious people, all related to the recent victim. Despite the fact that they are all immediately suspect in the murder, they talk to him constantly. They have him over for dinner. He hovers around their lives. Perversely, despite having absolutely zero self-interest in constantly exposing themselves to a famous police investigator (they all know who he is), they seem almost strangely insistent that he observes them.

Even more perversely, Dalgliesh does so willingly. These are not nice, impressive or even remarkable people. To a man or woman, they're fairly loathsome: empty, brand-conscious, classist, petty — bourgeois day-tripping pseudo-intellectuals pretending to a higher station and higher meaning in life confronting locals trapped in a routinized and dull existence. If this were set in the United States, it would take place in a bed and breakfast either in Mendocino, California, or somewhere in Vermont, with half the cast being locals and the rest having driven up from San Francisco or New York, respectively.

The book dawdles in flashbacks from these people's lives (including some that border on the fanciful), then meanders through a long subplot about espionage at a local nuclear power station. There are several high-minded conversations about nuclear energy, probably the product of James' decades-long career in the British civil service. The Whistler is discovered about two-thirds of the way through the book, almost as if an afterthought, and the killer responsible for the opening murder is revealed largely without Dalgliesh's intervention at all. He's something of a cipher, surrounded by people so terminally unlikable that they reveal a universal capacity for murder just strident enough that the real killer seems almost implausible by comparison. The banality of their evil is too profound to prevent its declaring itself. As for the book, probably 50 pages of it are unnecessary embroidery.

Given the above, it's something of a wonder to me why I bought a P.D. James book. I'm still not clear on it myself. I'm pretty sure I was staring at a two-for-one table in a bookstore, had found three books I wanted and needed a fourth to get the bargain. Months or maybe a year later — it was just there for a while — I plucked the book off my shelf. It was one of those late Saturday nights where I realized I had nothing to do and no idea what I should do. Midnight, all deadlines met, no obligations the next day, some nice beer in the fridge, nice weather outside and total paralysis when facing my bookshelves. I think I finally picked it because I knew I could finish it in a few hours and go to sleep early enough so as not to sleep so late and waste a Sunday. The book was Cover Her Face, published in 1962, both James' first novel and the first in which Adam Dalgliesh appears.

The book begins with a dinner party at the home of the Maxies, an old English country family, presumably of squire stock. Mr. Maxie lies upstairs, invalided, silent, dying a slow death. At the table are Mrs. Maxie and her son Stephen, a doctor, and her daughter Deborah Riscoe, a widow. Stephen is down from London, and Deborah lives at the house and also often goes up to London. Also in attendance are: Miss Alice Liddell, who runs a local charity for orphaned girls and pregnant single women; the local vicar; a local doctor; and Catherine Bowers, a young lady whose family has lived near the Maxie estate for some time and who we learn has engaged in discreet naughty business with Stephen Maxie and believes that they have an "understanding."

During the dinner, a servant girl named Sally Jupp, who is on loan from Miss Liddell's charity for girls, acts fresh with Miss Liddell and exhibits a servant's uncharacteristic indifferent scorn. Days later, she shows up Deborah Riscoe socially at a local festival, arrives at the Maxie house to announce her engagement to Stephen, contemptuously dismisses Miss Liddell as a sexless hypocrite, and turns up dead the next morning. Because the Maxies are a good family, Dalgliesh is sent down from London, and the book takes the familiar shape of an English country mystery, with the genteel and suspected parties revealing their ugly prejudices and interests to the investigator from out of town. Everyone has a reason to have wanted Sally Jupp dead, and for some reason they can't stop mentioning whatever it is.

Disappointingly, the book commits classic mystery-novel sins by withholding information, introducing a completely unknown character at the end to establish an alibi for some, a motive for others and a sudden insight into the victim. The killer turns out to be obvious, but the reader can only arrive at that conclusion after misdirection occluded by witnesses and suspects who show up at the last second. And, of course, almost everyone involved is a jerk. Going off a general description, the experience of reading this was almost exactly like my reading Devices and Desires. A well-mannered, cool-eyed insouciant detective solves a crime by just sort of hanging out while almost comprehensively unlikable people provide him with information until the solution presents itself to him.

The difference, though, is that Cover Her Face was wholly appealing and made Devices and Desires seem a much better book in retrospect.

As said, James was a career civil servant. She entered the workforce after her husband's post-war trauma obliged him to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. In order to provide for her children, she needed a reliable income, and she found a job commensurate with her curiosity. By happy accident, this career came to influence much of the social subject matter of her books. In Devices and Desires, the espionage subplot about a nuclear power plant allows her to engage in a kind of socratic dialogue about the value of nuclear energy in relation to fossil fuels and environmentalism. In Cover Her Face, class issues suffuse the whole of the plot. Rather than a misdirection via something like dinner-party conversation, James tackles an entire attitude toward the social order. The treatment, at times, is nothing short of acid. She drops brutal dismissals such as these throughout the text:
The town hall, which looked as if it had been designed by a committee of morons in an excess of alcohol and civic pride, stood in isolated splendour bounded by two bombed sites where rebuilding had only just begun. (158)

He fumes against what he calls the desecration of Chadfleet New Town from a Victorian pseudo-castle so ugly that I'm surprised someone hasn't formed a trust to preserve it. (184-5)
These statements are more obvious because they're impersonal, a condemnation of things rather than people. Here, James is smart, only directly challenging the inanimate, rather than a person in which a reader is likely to see himself. The treatment of people, of ideologies and classes is far more subtle and not the sort of thing that can be quoted. A diminutive adjective only works so effectively when surrounded by lots of exposition that toes expected class lines.

The Maxies, the vicar and Miss Liddell from the "these girls had sex without being married" refuge represent an atavistic refusal to address the realities of modern Britain. It's 1962, and the leveling factors of Labour society and a mandated social-safety policy have been in effect for 17 years. The birth control pill has existed as a scientific reality for two years (or at least one, by the time of writing), making Miss Liddell and her home for girls a dead branch on the British Heart of Oak. But this reality has only intermittently intruded on their lives. Although young Stephen Maxie is a doctor in London, he hasn't the wealth to maintain an estate anymore, despite their vain hopes. The very idea of estates is on its way out. The house in which the murder takes place represents little more than a desperate redoubt from which an overwhelmed and defeated party makes one last attempt to destroy an avatar of the coming army.

Sally Jupp is that avatar, and her announced engagement with Stephen indicates a permanent erosion of class distinction. To the Maxies and Liddell, her assertion of equality via marriage seems like usurpation, an upstart pretension to an order they don't realize doesn't exist anymore. Killing her is a futile try at stabbing Clement Atlee in 1945. It's too late to have any effect. The Sally Jupps of the world have seized and will not relinquish an equality that is not vacated by intercourse or single-parenthood; nor will they acquiesce to a society where their parentage or occupations accord them less value as citizens. That this might thrust a chin jeeringly at the local no-longer-a squire is no longer justification for punishment. In case the theme of these class struggles is unclear, there's always the owner of the Maxie estate, Mr. Maxie, dying wordlessly and irrevocably upstairs, a mortal certitude unworthy of debate.

This, most of all, makes me wonder if I "get" P.D. James. Because this is withering stuff, and it's exactly the sort of thing that most of her readers don't seem to embrace. Go to an page for any of her books and read any review less than a full five stars, and you will see the repeated complaint that her books are humorless, sometimes flat. Many of them reflect a disappointment that Dalgliesh doesn't crack wise or offer zingers to the awful people he meets, but his attitude seems like the essential point. He's not an active agent of judgment but a conduit for observation. His wish-fulfillment status makes him a sort of agglomerated person but an artfully designed optic for a multitude of readers: Dalgliesh focuses the impulses of strangers to emit their awfulness and channels them into a digest of everything nauseating about themselves.

Maybe those strangers are the ones not getting it, because P.D. James seems pretty hilarious. Hers is a comedy born of contempt. (Unsurprisingly, given her life experience, it's a contempt directed especially intensely at emotionally dependent women who subjugate themselves to the impulses of the men in their lives.) If you're willing or expecting to see it, the comedy comes through consistently. The laughs and bon mots don't arrive from puns or put-downs but rather from letting people malformed of thought and feeling describe themselves at the reader, presenting who they are as people and thinking that it amounts to an excuse instead of an indictment. After reading a second book and thinking back on the first, I think that P.D. James genuinely loathes English people — these selfish, overly class-conscious, jealous, venal, petty, gossiping, vindictive, arrogant, house-proud, predatory and mostly disposable gasbags. I suspect that she would very probably feel this way about all people, to some degree or another. But she's English and lives there, and so English people it is. She gives no indication that they don't deserve it.

Good genre fiction always offers an insight into the present through extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes it's a blackwhite-faced guy trying to kill a whiteblack-faced guy on Star Trek, where the intent is harder to overlook. A lot of other times, it's more accessible in reality but less obvious in meaning. Sure, there's a dead body, and that's unusual, but we all can understand a story that opens with a dead body (even Hamlet begins with a dead man's testament to murder). If or when that story begins to reflect not on the killer but on us as people is a little trickier to recognize.

James rounds out her main character with an emotive and literary other-life, but, as the reader experiences him, he's fairly inert. He's the desirable access point. If the reader identifies with him, with the clarity and levelheadedness and omniscience, the point is something they're missing. He's the most-sizes-fit-you window. The suspects are all more real and more like us than the author or her optics. The funny thing about P.D. James is that she's funny, and the funnier thing might be that those who celebrate the literary quality of her mannerly crime stories don't ever think to laugh at all.

Then again, maybe I've completely misread her.

Rating: 4 & 3
Cover Her Face is remarkable as a debut novel and as a social piece and mystery. I think at this point that I have no choice but to accept that mystery novels will commit mystery-novel sins of withholding and informational dishonesty. Given that, it's hard to bear the book too much ill. Devices and Desires, on the other hand, regardless of any retrospective goodwill, is still just too prone to wandering. It's a serviceable mystery and much better than average character study, but it comes with numerous pages of flashback and misdirection inessential to a mystery. While some of that was necessary for James' discussion about nuclear energy, and for her depiction of the principles as marred characters, she has synthesized plot and social issues better and more seamlessly elsewhere.