Sunday, December 7, 2014

Death of a Crime Writer

P.D. James changed my life. Cover Her Face introduced me to adult crime fiction.

It also introduced me to a world of people (both real and fictional) and events that I didn’t know about before I read her. My wish to see her interviewed spurred, in part, my first trip to London in 1990. London did rather steal the show but the interview was terrific.

James’ world was not that of Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick. Her books featured bludgeoned barristers and clerical corpses. She was great at depicting the carnage that could come in the wake of passion and deceit. She was perhaps less successful with the subtleties of flirtation and romance. In one book Adam Dalgliesh meets the woman he will marry and in the next they are “all in all to each other.” I never understood the attraction on either side. But the romance occurs in the very latest of her books and perhaps she realized she might not have time for languorous glances and murmured words of love.

In a wonderful essay, “Love in the Mystery Novel: Ought Adam to Marry Cordelia?”, James talked about the difficulties marriage posed for the working detective and said: “I can only say I have no plans at present to marry Dalgliesh to anyone. Yet even the best regulated characters are apt occasionally to escape from the sensible hand of their author and embark, however inadvisably, on a love life of their own.”

I saw James interviewed by Tim Heald at the 1990 Bouchercon in London. I was sitting toward the back of the auditorium and have to say that when she came out on the stage I was reminded of the Queen. She wore a floral print dress and had a handbag in the crook of her arm. She wore no fanciful hat.

She was very clear that Roy Marsden did not make her forget her original conception of Adam Dalgliesh as Marsden once claimed in an interview.

“He would say that, wouldn’t he?” she asked. “He’s an actor.”

Indeed it does seem totally nuts that a writer who spent years developing a character over a series of books would give up her idea of him based on the performance of a single actor.

She was also much too kind to a young woman, dressed in full Sherlock attire, who began her question with “Of course I don’t read your books…” The mystery writer next to me said, “Someone should murder her.”

I found out later that there was some confusion over who was going to get Ms. James to her signing which meant she was left wandering the halls. She was rescued by a delighted fan who got her safely to where other delighted fans were waiting for her.

James also wrote some non-fiction. Her diary of her 77th year, Time to Be in Earnest, is revealing in a reticent way (which is fine with me). I found that we had many reading interests in common. Anyone who loves Anthony Trollope gets extra points in my book. I was struck by her observation concerning Lily Dale: “I wonder if [Trollope] knew what a monster he had created in Lily Dale? Admittedly Crosbie is a cad, but I can’t help congratulating him on his escape. And I pity poor Mrs. Dale, destined to spend her old age with a resolutely single and masochistic Lily.” Those of you who’ve read the Chronicles of Barset know exactly what she’s talking about. Those of you who haven’t have hours of reading pleasure ahead of you.

I also enjoyed Talking About Detective Fiction though I found myself muttering under my breath and frequently disagreeing with her. I thought she was rather hard on Agatha Christie and I’m not sure she understood how very funny Raymond Chandler can be.

Finally, I once heard Terry Gross interview P.D James on Fresh Air. Somehow, the Ripley novels of Patricia Highsmith were mentioned. James ardently disapproved of them. In fact she was so ardent that I finished listening to the interview and went out immediately and bought several. I love them still.

P.D. James believed in a world of justice and Tom Ripley lives a very comfortable life despite his amorality and criminality.

We readers are fortunate that we never really lose a novelist. We don’t have to be satisfied with faded photographs and mementos. We just have to open a book to bring that writer and her characters to life over and over again.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie, how wonderful you were able to hear her in person! What a memory to have all the rest of your living days! She was a beacon to so many of us for so long - it has been wonderful this week to see so many lovely mentions of her. TJStraw