Oliver Kamm is a banker and writer. He is the author of Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, and is working on a book on the political thought of Noam Chomsky. Oliver writes a column for The Times. He has also written for The Guardian and Prospect magazine. Here he discusses the detective fiction of P.D. James.
Oliver Kamm on the novels of P.D. James
With The Lighthouse (published last October), P.D. James has written 15 detective novels, as well as a psychological thriller, Innocent Blood (1980) and a dystopian fantasy, The Children of Men (1992). The principal character in all but two of the detective novels is Commander Adam Dalgliesh, a solitary and (having first appeared in the 1962 novel Cover Her Face) ageless poet. In the other two, the detective is a private investigator, Cordelia Gray.
While these novels are almost all bestsellers and many have transferred to classy small-screen adaptations, it is their fate to be underrated. Baroness James's writings are not mere crime fiction but, like those of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, works of literature that take the form of genre. I admire them on many grounds, but two stand out.
First, they are skilfully constructed stories in which the denouement is always surprising but retrospectively plausible. Unlike the paradoxes of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, where there are infuriating cases of the detective's revealing that all along he had had more information than the reader, these mysteries are never extravagantly contrived.
Secondly, without being didactic, Baroness James's novels convey a coherent philosophy of life more powerfully than many overtly political or theological books. Aesthetic judgements are independent of political or religious ones, and of course one can enjoy a book by a writer of different views from one's own. But Baroness James, for me, is a slightly different case: her Conservative politics and orthodox Anglican faith are far from my own beliefs, but I find nonetheless that they illuminate the personal and social relationships she writes about.
These strengths mark her out from more conventional detective novelists. In particular, they exemplify her achievement in rescuing English detective fiction from the sub-literate form in which it was cast by the most popular of all crime writers, Agatha Christie.
Bounded by risible scenarios, pedestrian dialogue and an absence of characterization, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or Poirot stories are mere puzzle books. Nor are the puzzles mentally stimulating; they are always neatly cleared up, with life then continuing in the village or household in exactly the way it did before, minus one or more characters. While dealing with murder, Agatha Christie's whodunits convey no sense of sin; they are works of reassurance. It is little wonder they are the staple reading of convalescents.
In Baroness James's novels, things can never return to the way they were. The disruptiveness as well as destructiveness of planned violence is stressed. In Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), the real murderer, who has tried to escape a historically momentous past, commits suicide after persuading a weaker person to commit the deeds. Like more 'literary' works, these novels also illuminate ethical dilemmas. One of the sub-plots of A Taste for Death (1985) depicts the reluctance of Dalgliesh's colleague, Kate Miskin, who has bettered herself after enduring a sink-estate childhood, to have her burdensome grandmother move in with her. The book concludes with a harrowing scene of the grandmother's violent death, and the murderer's challenging Kate to acknowledge that she is glad. In Original Sin (1994) the murderer is remorseless, because moved by personal outrage and suffering at the most monstrous crime of our age.
Baroness James's stories are grounded, moreover, not in a fantasy village like Miss Marple's St Mary Mead but in minutely observed details of our own society. The fluctuating prices of London houses are a backdrop for Kate's pride and relief at having made a life for herself with her own belongings, flat and career. The use of the internet for illicit purposes - organizing an upmarket swingers' club - is a surprising plot twist in The Murder Room (2003). The conflicting emotions of vocational calling and scheming ambition are laid bare in Baroness James's depictions of the professions: the law (A Certain Justice, 1997), medicine (A Mind to Murder, 1963) and the Church (Death in Holy Orders, 2001).
Not everything works, nor is that likely in such a large output. The motive for murder in The Murder Room is unusually weak. The two Cordelia Gray novels - An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) - are more convoluted, more melodramatic and less credible than the Dalgliesh novels. Baroness James is such a stickler for English grammar that in her dialogue, implausibly, every single character scrupulously observes the conventions for the use of the subjunctive.
But Baroness James's novels are an important and outstanding body of work that defies easy categorisation. She is the reviver of a good story, a chronicler of the way we live, an artist who forces ethical reflection - and a national resource. The best of all the detective novels are, in my view, Unnatural Causes (1967), which begins with a memorably gruesome image that poses a compelling mystery, and Original Sin. The Children of Men apparently did not sell anything like as well as the detective novels, and has not been repeated, but is a fine novel in itself. (It depicts a future where the human race falls barren and is dying out.) These novels and their companions are high art in a popular form, and I pay tribute to their author.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]