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P D James

Faber & Faber, have reprinted the crime novels of P D James, a name which will be known by many readers. I’ve read them all over the years, but couldn’t resist the great new covers. Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920, and went to Cambridge High school—up until the time of her death, she divided her time between Oxford and London. Apart from her writing, she worked for some time in criminal justice and for a hospital board in London. Her first novel was Cover her Face, published in 1962. Her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, in 2011. Fourteen of the books feature Adam Dalgleish, and two, Cordelia Gray. The  Adam Dalgleish stories are my favourites—although the Cordelia Gray excursions are good. These are three of my favourites

Cover Her Face tells the story of Sally Jupp, who works as a maid in the home of a Mrs Maxie. Mrs Maxie’s son, Stephen, and daughter, Dorothy live with her. Sally causes a sensation when she enters the house dressed exactly as Dorothy and announces that Stephen has asked her to marry him. The mother and daughter are horrified at the idea, declaring the marriage will happen when hell freezes over. It is not, then, so surprising when Sally is found the next morning, dead in her room, having been strangled. Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish is called in to solve the murder. The plot, like all of James’s books, is quite complicated, with many different characters—one of the most interesting being Sally, who’s story, although she is not actually around in person for most of the action, is the one that causes so much of the trouble erupting chez Maxie.

I think The Lighthouse, which I am reading at the moment, is one of her best. It’s set on the fictitious island of Combe, off the Cornish coast. This island offers a peaceful and secure rest for over-stressed professionals. The Island is managed by a trust, and anyone born on the island is granted leave to stay whenever and for however long they might like. Successful novelist, Nathan Oliver, is a native of the island who stays for two weeks every year—often with his daughter Miranda. He is a most unpleasant character, not at all welcomed on Combe. Most people think he comes to gather material for his books, and that is particularly the case with one of the other guests. A rather spectacular murder occurs, involving the lighthouse, and Dalgleish along with his partner, Detective-Inspector Kate Miskin, is sent to Combe to investigate. What he finds is resentment, hatred—and someone with an old score to settle.

The Black Tower is another favourite. Set, once again, in a remote and lonely place—this time on the Dorset Coast. Dalgleish is surprised to receive a note from an old friend—Father Baddesley, a retired priest who works as chaplain at Toynton Lodge, a home for the disabled— asking him to come and stay. On arrival, he finds that his friend is dead, whatever Baddesley needed to tell him taken to the grave. Baddesley has supposedly died of a heart attack, but Dalgleish begins to suspect  things are not all they seem in Toynton Lodge. Another death occurs, and an investigation is launched. One of the many things James is good at is invoking a sense of place. I could hear the wild sea of the Dorset Coast, the wind and the rain, and see the dangerous, rough cliff faces—falling down to the rocks below. Also, her characters are very real people you might know, or meet in the street. Reading her books, especially the older ones, shows how writing has changed. These books are generally lengthy tales, and quite dense—requiring a focussed attention. I have really enjoyed this little expedition into the past—a sort of double pleasure of the present reading, and the memory of how much I enjoyed them on my first reading (so many) years ago—when I took for granted the dense way they were written, demanding close reading—as most of the books I read at that time were. I feel that, alas, I have become  slightly lazy, looking for books I can read quickly, not in it for the hard work of actually reading every word.

As well as the novels, James also wrote short story collections, a fragment of an autobiography—A Time To Be In Earnest, and a true crime book The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811. The only book of hers I actively disliked was Death Comes to Pemberley—a post Pride and Prejudice novel that sees crime come to the married Elizabeth and Darcy’s estate. It just didn’t work, and is so off the mark, short of being desperate for the money, I don’t really know why she wrote the book. PD James won numerous awards, received honorary degrees from English universities and was created a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. I was fortunate to hear her speak, some time ago,when she was visiting Sydney. It was a great pleasure to listen to her, having been a fan  for so long.