by Sharon Tucker
On November 27 of this past year, Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park passed away at her home in Oxford, England. Although I have not read her at all since she published, Death Comes to Pemberley and for some time before that neglected to read her last few Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, I unexpectedly felt a strong pang of loss. As a result, I have started reading Cover Her Face once more and I now plan carry on reading her books I have missed.
Why does this feel necessary? Since there will be no more novels about Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray (as far as we know), the dearth prompts me to revisit Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray to try to recapture my former affection for them, for I do feel that. In addition, I have also started reading her personal memoir, Time to Be in Earnest as well as Talking about Detective Fiction.
As I read them, it is easy to see why I stopped reading her, but just as easy to see why I have started again. There is a high seriousness to all her books and sometimes one wearies of the proposed journey of even our favorite authors. In addition, her fiction is peopled with some very unpleasant, often dull characters, the plots are journeys into very dark places and she is unrelenting in keeping us caught up in the world of her books. Yes, you say, all hallmarks of a top-notch crime novelist–for that she was–but when I started reading her I had quite an appetite for learning about those dark people and places. My tastes have modified somewhat over time and it became more difficult to go to and stay where James has lead even for the length of a novel, a sign of shallowness on my part, I readily agree.
Adam Dalgliesh has always been an attractive character. He is a curious mixture of the poet and yet a personification of the law. I often felt that he was more reputedly ruthless than he was in reality, for all his stern directness. Reading how he solved crimes was always intriguing, since he was sensitive to nuance, as the most successful investigators must be, sensing what lay beneath the façade that other characters presented. He seemed so insular and lonely, not quite capable of the vulnerability so imperative to loving and being loved. The tragedy of losing his wife and child imbued him with a sorrow he never overcame in the novels about him, so as a tragic figure himself, perhaps he repelled the happiness he seems so to have deserved to find again.
When I read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Cordelia Gray was a young woman of my age. It was easy to identify with her as she started out learning a profession for I was involved in school and training as well. In Gray, we have the beguiling convention of the novice who has a talent for the job she has taken on and we learn with her as the investigations proceeds. We celebrate her luck in isolating previously undiscovered clues and her determination to follow up her discoveries despite being mysteriously warned off the case and surviving an attempt on her own life. As Gray follows the clues and solves the murder, her solution and its aftermath seemed so right, if unconventional and not exactly kosher.
In the title of this piece, I have used a quote from page nine of James’s eminently readable book, Talking about Detective Fiction, because it struck me as I read it to be the essence of the detective fiction she aspired to write and, to my mind, succeeded beautifully. Her novels merit the serious attention that was so much a part of her method in writing them. She has a facility with language that, if honed by her years as a bureaucrat, shows little of the tedium associated with that profession.
However, her readers must voluntarily settle themselves when entering her carefully wrought, stately-paced world and not pine for hairpin turns of action, much less seek titillation. Dalgliesh and Gray live in times that seem to lack the immediate gratifications to which we are so perilously accustomed to as I write–the novels I am familiar with are set before cell phones and the advent of the internet were widely in use, so are more 20th century than 21st, a quality I find particularly restful these days. Her last Dalgliesh was written in 2008, and the latest I’ve read was written in 1986, so I look forward to seeing how she accommodated her characters to the changes in everyday life so markedly different from that of her childhood in the 1920s.
Baroness James will be missed by her readers and loved ones as a most expert witness of detection.
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