Thursday, August 2, 2012

August's Salute to P. D. James

Linked below are two interesting pieces on Britain's longtime co-reigning Queens of Crime, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell.

Ruth Rendell: the peer who never stops plotting (Telegraph, 30 July 2012)

P. D. James: inside the head of a criminal mastermind (Guardian, 14 July 2012)

Interesting that the piece on the conservative mystery peer is in the Guardian and the one on the liberal peer is in the Telegraph!  I guess this just goes to show you how this deadly duo really has conquered the world with their crime fiction.

Anthony Boucher came not to praise
Cover Her Face but to bury it

P. D. James will turn 92 on Friday.  And it is fifty years since her first novel (a crime novel of course!) was published in Britain.  It was called Cover Her Face (coincidentally, this was almost the title of Agatha Christie's posthumously published final Miss Marple mystery, Sleeping Murder).  In Britain it's out in a sparkly new paperback edition from James' English publisher, Faber & Faber.

It's rather amusing (once you get over the initial shock) to see what that Great Man of American mystery criticism, Anthony Boucher (1911-1968), had to say about Cover her Face, which was not even published in the United States until 1966!

To be fair to Boucher, even James herself seems somewhat ambivalent about this novel today, admitting that it is very traditional, but at the time she must have found his review, which appeared in the pages of the  New York Times Book Review on 24 July 1966, intensely disappointing:

It's much easier to see why nobody rushed to import P. D. James' Cover Her Face.  This is a literate and not unpromising first novel, but modeled firmly upon the detective story of 30 years ago at its dullest.  No forward plot, nothing but 80,000 words of relentless (and non-procedural) investigation leading to the final assembly of all the characters and the unbelievable confession....When I keep urging a return to the formal detective story, this is not what I mean.

Ouch!  Basically, Boucher is labeling James one of those British "Humdrums," the tag that has been attached by a number of people, including Julian Symons and James herself, to writers like John Rhode (John Street) and Freeman Wills Crofts (Boucher himself often actually gave much stronger reviews back in the 1940s to Rhode's and Crofts' books than he did in 1966 to James' Cover Her Face).  Such irony! 

Yet here it is a half-century later and Cover Her Face is still in print--in fact has never been out of print--and has sold oodles and oodles of paperback copies, not to mention now e-editions.  Boucher's dismissive review strikes me as something of a miscall, but even Great Men can have off moments!

Maybe she's searching
for Adam Dalgleish!
 In the review column in which he panned Cover Her Face Anthony Boucher expressed a marked preference for Afternoon for Lizards/Bridge of Fear by the New Zealand Gothic novelist Dorothy Eden (1912-1982), who, it seems, published over forty books between 1940 and 1982.

I must admit that I had never even heard of Dorothy Eden, let alone read anything by her.

Though here you go, here's a blog piece on Eden (isn't the internet grand?):

Dorothy Eden: forgotten kiwi suspense writer?

In honor of P. D. James's 92nd and the 50th anniversary (1962-2012) of Cover Her Face, I plan to blog a bit about the Baroness in August.

With the Friday Forgotten book coming up on James' birthday, that day I will be blogging The Maul and the Pear Tree, a true crime study that James authored with T. A. Critchley in 1971.  Nothing by James is truly forgotten (in fact Maul has recently been reprinted by Faber & Faber), but it's as obscure as James gets!

After this, expect to see something some time this month on the first two James detective novels, as well as a comparison piece between one of the Baroness' mysteries and one by "Humdrum" John Rhode.  They have more in common than you might think--and not in a bad way by any means!  Happy reading!


  1. As a devotee of true crime, The Maul and the Pear Tree is the only book by P.D. James that I've read. I know her other books only from seeing the television adaptations. They were enjoyable enough that way, but I've got so many books I want to read more that I've never gotten around to them.

    As to The Maul and the Pear Tree, it's about a crime so old it must have been difficult to research, but it left a good enough impresion that I bought a copy recently to reread.

  2. Dorothy Eden along with Virgina Coffman, Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt were the leading Gothic Queens of the 1970s. Whitney and Holt (aka "Jean Plaidy" aka "Philippa Carr", in reality Eleanor Hibbert) were the two most popular I think, and were lucky enough to be published in hardcover during their lengthy careers. With few exceptions the writers of Gothic suspense novels are hardly ever critiqued or discussed in the same manner and with the same vigor as detective fiction. Not even as the pop culture phenomenon they were throughout the 60s and 70s. Maybe I haven't been looking hard enough throughout the internet, but I still think they are thought of as "lowbrow lit" by reviewers and critics. I've started investigating the much maligned genre of Gothics and have so far discovered that Coffman was a great plotter and something of a stylist. She also experimented in other genres (crime, detection, and westerns). Eden and Holt are on the list for reviews/critiques, too. Whitney is too formulaic for me, though I enjoyed reading her Gothic suspense books when I was a teen. Interestingly, Whitney's first adult novel RED IS FOR MURDER was a straight detective novel. It's a rather scarce book and sought after by collectors.

  3. Really looking forward to reading your reviews Curt - James is now considered part of the old-guard and yet in the 70s was very much an innovator like Rendell for her more realistic approach and unusual subject matter.

    Sergio (Tipping My Fedora)

  4. Thanks Sergio. Yes, James was seen as an innovator in the 70s and certainly by the 80s, especially with Innocent Blood and A Taste for Death.