Thursday, May 29, 2008

PD James: Time Traveler from the Golden Age of Detection

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently read PD James’s 2005 mystery, The Lighthouse. It’s a stately read that is best savored at a leisurely pace rather than gobbled up in a night. In fact, I had saved it for airplane reading to and from a signing in Minneapolis, where it not only entertained me but provided a promotional bookmark (mine, not James’s) to give to the potential reader in the next seat.

Even in the first 50 pages, it struck me that James, at 80 a revered and much honored author, is allowed to construct a mystery that would never pass muster with agents or editors from a newbie, even if a beginning writer could achieve her magnificent prose style. Today we’re exhorted to put the murder up front—in the first chapter if not on the first page—and keep the action non-stop. Some respected authors who teach writing insist that the right amount of backstory in a manuscript is none whatsoever. It’s considered amateurish to “tell, not show” what our characters are like. The omniscient author point of view is out of fashion, and if we introduce too many POV characters, we’re castigated for “head hopping.”

It’s inevitable that the literary world says James’s Adam Dalgleish series “transcends the genre.” Yet The Lighthouse is constructed quite like a Golden Age mystery of the Thirties, when Agatha Christie reigned and Dorothy L. Sayers ruled the Detective Club with an iron hand. In the opening scene, Dalgleish is presented with the case by his superiors. Each of his subordinates gets a scene detailing the daily life that gets interrupted when the murder call comes. This tells us that we’re reading a police procedural, in which all the investigators will have their turn on center stage. The scene then shifts to the isolated island where the murder has occurred, rolling back time to the day before and giving us in turn the close third-person point of view of the victim and each of the nine or ten characters who will become suspects. Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh did the same, whether in narrative form like James or by listing a “cast of characters” at the beginning of the novel. The scene in which the body is discovered begins on page 55, too late, or on the brink, if it appeared in an unpublished writer’s manuscript.

The Lighthouse abounds in magnificent and detailed descriptions of the isolated island off the Cornish coast which acts as a “locked room”—another favorite Golden Age device—for the murder. Today’s mystery writing gurus suggest avoiding unbroken passages of description. “Don’t start with a weather report,” one of them, I forget which, advises. James’s landscapes and interiors run for paragraphs, sometimes for pages. Characterization too, for the most part, proceeds by “telling, not showing.” Interior monologues present characters with texture and complexity. But except for the victim and his daughter, characters’ behavior seldom demonstrates the truth of the analysis.

Along with the subtleties, James throws in stereotyped characterizations that are far less convincing from the perspective of today’s worldview than they were in the Golden Age. “It was a scholar’s face,” she says of one suspect from the detective’s point of view. What is a scholar’s face? Like Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” it’s a stock epithet rather than a description based on observed reality. Actually, I think I know what James meant: a resemblance to the portraits of such historical figures as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Such assumptions used to abound in British fiction, not just in the Thirties but through the Fifties. Example: the classic The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which the detective comes to believe that King Richard III was framed because in his portrait, he looks like, yep, a scholar and someone who’s known suffering rather than like a villain.

I enjoyed reading The Lighthouse, even though I guessed more of the plot than I would have before I started writing mysteries of my own. It held my interest, and the literate prose was a pleasure to read. I prefer series, with their extended character arcs, so I was interested to hear more about the recurring characters’ lives, even though I still don’t find the relationship between Dalgleish and Emma quite convincing. In general, James at 80 is finally writing, if not erotic scenes, scenes of and passages about sexuality, which she never used to do. Overall, it’s a fine novel—but reading it is a very different experience from reading the mysteries of 21st century authors.


Paul Lamb said...

I truly think most mystery fiction being published now has been dumbed down by formulae that agents and editors know they can sell. That's a shame. Fortunately, we have practitioners like James who are keeping the genre into the literary sphere.

Anonymous said...

I love PD James. Thought I'd mention another new mystery author named Jacqueline D'Acre. Her book Foreclosure is brilliant.