One victim has his throat slit in a church. Another is immolated. Still another undergoes a medical procedure, imagining that the stuff in the syringe is going to be helpful, when in fact the stuff is poison. A hated barrister is sliced open with a letter opener. An old cranky wheelchair-bound man is sent sailing off a cliff. A writer of murder mysteries is found in a boat with both hands chopped off at the wrist.
All of the above are examples of the ways in which P. D. James killed off her characters, or at least, how my memory represents these fictional deaths. A P. D. James mystery followed a simple format. (What follows is my memory of the format, though I’m sure I’m simplifying matters, as it has been a few years since I read my last James novel.) A community of sinful men and women is introduced to the reader. Perhaps the men and women work for a publishing house, or maintain a seminary, or have something to do with the courts. In any case, the men and women mostly, secretly, hate each other, and the omniscient narrator travels from consciousness to consciousness, outlining some of the reasons for all the passion and hate.
Then one character ends up murdered. You’re led to believe that one of the other characters did it, and the case seems to hurtle to a close, and then suddenly another character is dead, and it’s clear that the person you thought was the killer was not the killer after all. A shocking twist: The killer is revealed, caught, punished. More secrets emerge, and most of the living folk are left shattered in the final pages, unsure how to proceed with life.
P. D. James was a great fan of Jane Austen. She argued persuasively that Austen’s stories are sometimes murder mysteries, but without the murder. She used, as an example, Emma, which involves one protagonist’s dramatic misreading of a certain series of relationships that surround her. The plot pivots toward the end, Emma corrects her own misunderstandings, and all mysteries are solved. It seems to me you could apply this formula to Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, as well.
In any case, James’s interest in Austen hints at the seriousness of her own literary ambitions. Someone once said, in reference to War and Peace, that all great literary works bring an end to one genre and begin another. I think that’s true of P. D. James’s work. She was often compared to Agatha Christie, but she disliked the comparison; Christie’s works are fairly bloodless and somewhat improbable, whereas James worked to be thoroughly realistic, to make you believe what was happening, and to describe for you, in full, all the blood and all the guts that get spilled in some real-world murders.
At the same time, James is different from some of her peers, such as Chelsea Cain and Ian Rankin. There’s a current trend of making the investigator as damaged as, if not more damaged than, the people he investigates. (Witness Luther, Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick series, and the BBC’ Sherlock, among other stories.) James would have none of that. Her investigator, Dalgliesh, is a paragon. It’s hard not to want to be him. He’s so dreamy, he’s basically an update of Jane Austen’s Darcy. In fact, when James tried her hand at a Pride and Prejudice sequel, her Darcy very closely resembled her Dalgliesh.
Also, James offers you an opportunity to get to know each of the suspects in full before the murderer’s identity is revealed. And so you feel a kind of intense shock at the climax of a James novel. I don’t feel this when I read Rankin or Cain, as much as I love their books. I never feel fully seduced by, fully acquainted with, whichever character they reveal to be the murderer.
This said, even a less-than-perfect mystery can be a treat. When I was little, the play I loved most was Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Here, you’re presented with ten guests at a manor, and you know one of them has to be the killer. It’s structured in that way. But you’re also forced to spend a good deal of time with, and even to get to like, each character. How can it be that you’re gravely misreading one of them? You know you’re doing it as you’re doing it, but the problem can’t be helped. What a thrill it is to be manipulated in that way.
I was tiny enough to believe that the world of Ten Little Indians was in some way a reflection of the real world. Of course, it’s not; it’s a well-constructed game. But what a fun game it was, and how easily I became obsessed with Christie’s — and, later, Donna Leon’s, and Ruth Rendell’s, and P. D.James’s — stories of death and deceit.
A side note: James seemed to have a will of steel. She climbed up from poverty, and away from a father who did not really believe in educating girls. She wrote her first novel well into middle age, because she realized that, if she one day had to tell her grandchild, “I wanted to write, but never did,” she might be disgusted with herself. Meanwhile, in other corners of her world, her young husband was fighting mental illness after involvement in a war, there was hardly enough money to put bread on the table, and the desire to write necessitated daily wake-up calls at 5AM, followed by a full marathon of parenting and holding down a bureaucratic job. James did all of this, and eventually became world-famous, with a role in the British government.
Her peer, the novelist Val McDermid, called her “a legend”, and “my hero”. Mine too. She died this year, on Thanksgiving, having published her final novel in her 90s.
Lastly, it occurred to me I should list my favorites among her books. They’re the ones I read first. (I didn’t read in any particular order.) After college, on a teacher’s recommendation, I raced through Death in Holy Orders, A Certain Justice, and Original Sin, and each of these has a special place in my memory. By coincidence, these also happen to be from the height of James’s career. (There’s an early-career phase, typified by Unnatural Causes, and a late-career phase, typified by The Private Patient, and then there’s the really great stuff in the middle.)
Some critics felt that James’s last few novels showed diminished energy, and that’s correct. Still, I have never picked up a James novel that I disliked.