Murder she wrote

Second Take

Murder she wrote

What I admired about P D James was her talent for characterisation. I believe she exceeded all her partners in crime in this, except Martin Cruz Smith. It wasn’t so much her writing or her plotting or her research (all three for which she was known for) but her characters whom made her detective fiction superior to anything in the market. This is why her books were considered on par with good fiction, and the reason why not just mystery fans, but lovers of literature too will mourn the death of P D James.

Once, at being compared to Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey, she dismissed their work as not being sophisticated enough, that they never took crime seriously; that they failed to explore its moral complexities. Anyway, her death means a new interest in her work, and hopefully some British studio will pick up the series again for television.

Her death might benefit fans of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries on TV, which had abruptly stopped with The Murder Room. Martin Shaw was welcome as the new Dalgliesh taking over from Roy Marsden in Death in Holy Orders. I’d like to think that Shaw was more what James imagined her detective to be, after all she did go on record to say Marsden was a fine actor but wasn’t her Dalgliesh. Her detective had a full head of hair and no mustache to start with, and he wouldn’t, she also added, do some of the things Marsden did in the series, including having his hands in his pocket when questioning suspects or dress the way he did. Shaw is more the classy, Patrician detective, and I wondered if James actually asked that Shaw play her poetry writing detective.

My favourite James mystery remains her 11th, Death in Holy Orders, because it’s a mystery with an ecclesiastical setting; a tribute to and an exploration of a slowly vanishing English heritage: the high Anglican Church with its archaic but beautiful prayers, its rich sense of ceremony and tradition and its streak of asceticism. While this isn’t the first P D James mystery where a murder occurs in a church, this was the first (and now the last) to be set in a theological college, against the backdrop of contemporary church intrigue and politics, and so it will always remain a special Dalgliesh mystery. Dalgliesh, we forget, is himself the son of a parson and so becomes even more qualified to investigate this theological mystery.

And his fans who have mourned with him for the death of his wife at childbirth, can rejoice: after a long period of solitude, at finding romance here. Emma, the Cambridge poetry lecturer, of course. Dr Emma Lavenham, a young, intelligent, strikingly beautiful lecturer of English Literature who comes once a semester from Cambridge to teach the ordinands the literary heritage of Anglicanism. The students adore her because she goes beyond religious poetry to teach them Gerard Manley Hopkins and T S Eliot. At one point in the novel, it dawns on him that, “She’s kind as well as clever and beautiful. His heart lurched, a sensation unfamiliar as it was unwelcome. He thought, Oh! God, not that complication. Now now. Not ever.” But they can’t resist each other.

James brings her erudition to bear on an old ecclesiastical controversy of the Church of England: should or should there not be reform in High Anglicanism, a traditional denomination of the Protestant Church. James has Archdeacon Crampton and Father Morell heatedly debate the role of tradition and modernity in the Anglican faith: The Archdeacon says, “The Church is not a social organisation within which the comfortable middle class can satisfy its craving for beauty, order, nostalgia and the illusion of spirituality.” And Father Morell replies: “What is it that you want? A Church without mystery, stripped of that learning, tolerance and dignity and the virtues of Anglicanism?

A Church without humility in the face of the ineffable mystery and love of God? Services with banal hymns, a debased liturgy and the Eucharist conducted as if it were a parish bean feast? A Church for Cool Britannia?” And what did religion itself mean to James? When one of her characters voices her thoughts on what it means to her, she could be speaking for the author: “She found in organised religion a structure for moral striving rather than the final repository of revealed truth.”

She had the highest opinion of good genre writing, and indeed of her own crime fiction. She said once, “It is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer… it is foolish to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to 14 lines… There are thousands of people who do like, for their recreational reading, a classical detective story, and I think they are entitled to have one which is also a good novel and well written. Those are the people I write for.”

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