Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Mystery of the Author's Decline

After finishing The Murder Room by P.D. James, I have one question: Who’s been putting Xanax in the Baroness's coffee?

Warning: spoilers for Murder Room, Unnatural Death, Death of an Expert Witness, A Taste for Death, Cover Her Face, Shroud for a Nightingale

Much of The Murder Room reads as though James is just too tired to flesh out the plot, the interviews, and the characters. Too much is told in summary, rather than scene. Even the obligatory horror story embedded in the middle is given short shrift, and I still haven’t figured out the relevance or the details of the betrayal in the anti-Nazi underground group.

But it’s more than just the weary, phoned-in quality that bothers me. It’s the drawing back from the painful consequences of murder. PD James has never been afraid of hurting (or killing off) sympathetic characters. Indeed, much of her appeal for me has always lain in her ability to show the humanity in all her characters, even the killers, while she nevertheless treats them with the ruthlessness the book demands. The lesbian novelist trying desperately to save her home and the life she’s made with her lover? Dies while attempting the gentlest form of blackmail. The over-driven, emotionally exhausted single father who wants to keep his family together? Murders to save them, but loses them when he’s caught. The devout old lady who befriends a street waif? Loses her faith, loses the waif she’s grown to love as a son, although he survives.

The Murder Room is different. The decent, humane older woman who has finally made herself a home doesn’t get killed or lose her home. The museum (for the sake of which the murder is done) does indeed stay open. Dalgliesh doesn’t lose a lover to the exigencies of his job. In fact, he gets engaged.

I do not insist that Adam Dalgleish stay celibate for his job; he's had lovers before. But now he has proposed to some woman he's never even fucked. There is very little indication in this book that he even knows the woman. I certainly don't know much about her, except that she teaches at Cambridge and has never been to his flat. I missed the previous book (Murder in Holy Orders), in which Emma and Dalgleish apparently fell in love.

Isn't it a bit tacky to be cruising murder scenes for pickups? Although that at least is in character. He became involved with Deborah Whatshername, whose mother he arrested for murder, and nearly married her. But she dumped him and went off to America while he was on vacation—where, of course, he stumbled over several interesting corpses. (That book, Unnatural Death, is in many ways a critique of the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries; she even swiped the title from Sayers. Must write about that at some point.) He was also strongly attracted to a suspect in Shroud for a Nightingale, who turned out not to be guilty of various other crimes, including the original murders, but took justice into her own hands by killing the murderess.

I'm also a bit troubled by the age difference; Dalgleish has always, as far as I could tell, aged naturally—that is, as calendar time passed in the world, it also passed in the books. His wife and child died during the 1950s. Thirty years ago he was in his early 40s. Now he’s got to be in his 70s—well past retirement age. Has he ceased to age at all? I don't know how old Emma is—she could be anything from mid-twenties to forty-something, I suppose. The age parameters are that she has a PhD in English but is still fertile, since Dalgleish was even mooning over the possibility of their having a child together. Somehow I can’t see that obsessively fastidious man dealing well with the daily chaos, noise, and mess of child-rearing.

Baroness James is 85 now. Perhaps she is mellowing with age, or she may want to leave her detective—and her readers—on a hopeful note. I salute her very great achievement over all these decades, and I hope she can bring us a few more good murders before she follows so many of her characters into death.

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