Saturday, September 5, 2015

Death of an Expert Witness

PD James is a master of detective fiction. She even wrote a book about it called, appropriately enough, TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION. And in DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS, she follows her own rules to a T. That is, she gives you a closed circle of possible murderers, and directs us skillfully away from the truth without ever lying. Virtually everyone in this vicious circle of suspects has a motive, and James gives us all we need to know to solve the crime. I didn’t, and I don’t think most people could have, but I didn’t feel cheated at the end. It was there to be figured out, but by a more cerebral fellow than myself.

At the center of it all is her great detective Inspector Dalgliesh. He is quite a bright fellow, this Dalgliesh, and he carries the pain of having lost a child within him, and the daily pain of having to watch the brutal things people do to each other. James is pretty smart herself, is an intellectual writer (and I mean that in a good way). I wonder if the habit of plumbing the depths of human depravity is as taxing to a writer as it is to a detective.

Dalgliesh is more of a Holmes or Poirot than a Marlowe or a Sam Spade. He solves crimes not by insulting and punching and having sex with suspects until the whole thing unravels, but by piecing the puzzle of violent death together with a surgeon’s precision. He does have the keen sense of human nature that Marlowe and Spade have, and he knows how to get what he wants from an interrogation, becoming all things to all people in ways that always serve his purposes.

I think there are three kinds of murder mysteries: the kind where everyone has a motive (like this one), the kind where it seems that no one has a motive, and the kind where the only person who seems to have a motive didn’t do it because in reality there is one other person who secretly had a motive. In this novel, there are two murders, and the action is framed by the investigation of a third, which happens mostly offstage.

If you go to a job with people you don’t like every day, take heart, because you don’t, at least, work at Hoggatt’s Lab. The people there are petty and vindictive in the most extreme ways, and before the novel is over we will have seen bullying, serial adultery, a vicious custody battle, extortion, a brother- sister relationship that gets very, very close to the incestuous, a semi-psychotic child, a corrupt cop who is a red herring, and who sells cannabis seized as evidence to supplement his retirement, two murders, and more. Dalgliesh feels, as he wades into this cesspool, that he should have worn boots, then waders, then a haz-mat suit.

The men in this tome are often feckless milksops, and the women can be hard and cruel. But I don’t think there was a stock character in the bunch. Everyone’s a round character (to steal a phrase from EM Forster). The cruel show compassion, the stupid have flashes of insight, the cowardly show a little gumption every once in a while. And people’s motives are never tidy as they struggle with their demons, not wanting to give in to their darker urges (but they do, oh they do).

And through it all, James handles characterization and action with a tough and terse poetry. In the final scene Dalgliesh he visits a clunch pit, a kind of peat bog, an ancient place in a rough and ready rural place near the North sea called the Fens, a place that is kind of like a parking lot or an alley in the worst part of town you can imagine, but it is a beautiful and sunny day and for a moment he forgets that death carries life around in the palm of its hand, and we are forever in danger of it deciding, as if on a whim, to close it:

Even the discarded beer cans glinted like bright toys and the wastepaper bowled along merrily in the wind. The air was keen and smelled of the sea. It was possible to believe that the Saturday shoppers trailing with their children across the scrubland were carrying their picnics to the beach, that the clunch field led on to dunes and marram grass, to the child-loud fringes of the sea.

Dalgliesh can never forget the cruelty of the world for long, though. Every character in the novel is driven by unconscious or even conscious desires. Even Dalgliesh, who admits that the death of his son has hardened him. And yet, existentialist, nihilist or cynic (or all three) that he is, fully aware of the blind malevolence of the universe he inhabits, he tries to impose a rough kind of human justice on it.

The pit is the place of the initial murder in the book, and is a much more forbidding and foreboding place at night. When Kerrison, a kind of M.E., a British Quincy, arrives on the scene of the murder, he finds an rusted out old vehicle in which a dead girl’s body sits lit by a pair of arc lights: “Thus brightly lit it looked, to Kerrison, like some grotesque and pretentious modern sculpture, symbolically poised on the brink of chaos.”

And when he encounters the girl, he thought she had “the vacuous look of an adult clown…the body, still outwardly so human, looked an absurd burlesque, the skin of the pallid cheek as artificial as the stained plastic of the car against which it rested.” These brief passages carry a lot of punch per pound, and they occur all through the book, forming a backdrop, a mood, that you just can’t shake.

So, who is the murderer, or murderers? Take your pick from this litter of lunatic losers. I thought I had a lot of borderline, narcissistic, sociopathic types at my job, but this goes beyond even civil service! And the irony, of course, is that those at Hoggatt’s Lab are there to provide justice to society, while they deny it to each other. Something about James’s prose makes me think of her as a nice lady, but if she isn’t evil, she certainly knows what evil is.

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. She was far more than a nice lady.!!! She was one of THE most distinguished citizens of the United Kingdom - in so many more ways than merely as a superb crime writer. TJ Straw