Thursday, August 9, 2012

Follies, Part One: The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James

Follies are odd, ornamental structures, often towers, though they can even be houses (there's a house named Pitts' Folly in Uniontown, Alabama, not far from where I grew up, so named because of its massive columned portico, which overpowers the house).

Wainhouse Tower (1871-1875)
likely inspiration for the folly
The Bloody Tower (1938)
by John Rhode

Follies are an architectural art form in England and have inspired several mystery authors, including John Rhode (Dead Men at the Folly, 1932, and The Bloody Tower, 1938), Agatha Christie (Dead Man's Folly, 1956) and P. D. James (The Black Tower, 1975).  In this piece I want to compare P. D. James' The Black Tower with John Rhode's The Bloody Tower (The Tower of Evil) in the United States.  These novels have some surprising similarities.  Both portray grim worlds of rural decay and dementia, symbolized by a dark tower looming over all.

Follies by their very name seem appropriate for the classical detective novel, for is not murder the ultimate act of folly (or so the thought should run)? In mysteries these crazily eccentric towers seem to suggest not only folly and futility, but doom.

Certainly in P. D. James' The Black Tower, the tower is a potent symbol of death.  The tower in the novel was built by a great grandfather of Wilfred Anstey, current owner of the family estate, Toynton Grange, Dorset.  Great grandad, never too stable to begin with, eventually went completely off his rocker, barricading himself inside the tower, where he starved to death (a typically cheery P. D. James event).

James' cerebral police detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is in hospital recovering from sickness (he thought he was dying, but in a rare piece of good fortune in James-land, it seems the diagnosis was in error), when he receives a letter from his vicar father's old curate, Father William Baddeley, asking him to come down to Toynton Grange, a private nursing home for the incurably disabled, for a discussion about a certain matter that concerns Father Baddeley.

Of course, readers of murder mysteries that we are, we aren't surprised to learn that Father Baddeley expired shortly before Dalgliesh arrives at Toynton Grange.  A natural death--or so they say.

Clavell Tower (1830)
inspiration for The Black Tower (1975)
Dalgliesh naturally is suspicious and finds himself being drawn into snooping around, even though he has decided to retire from the force (he also has that celebrated poet gig going, remember).  The first half of the novel is rather slow (though atmospheric), but in the second half the bodies really begin to pile up, somewhat improbably though entertainingly.  There is a smash climax, though the ending itself is rather abrupt.

At the time it was published, nearly thirty years ago (the same year that Agatha Christie's rather depressing final Poirot novel, Curtain, appeared), The Black Tower was much lauded by critics for its setting in a home for incurably disabled patients. The late crime writer H. R. F. Keating chose The Black Tower as one of the 100 greatest detective novels of all time and it won the Silver Dagger from the Crime Writers Association (it lost the Gold Dagger to Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per Cent Solution).  The novel was considered the ultimate example of James' refraining from falsely prettifying death in the manner of the classic English cozy mystery.

And, indeed, James doesn't hold back on unpleasant physical details.  Even with the people who aren't patients, we read about discolored teeth, dandruff, mole hairs, sweat, enlarged pores, etc.  James parts company with her model, Dorothy L. Sayers, here, though I do recall one Gothic short story by Sayers, "Scrawns," which gets into similar squirmy material.

Through Dalgliesh--who has always had an aversion to physical contact with other humans that borders on the phobic in my view ("Dalgliesh held out his hand and felt it imprisoned between Anstey's two palms.  It took an effort of will not to flinch from this clammy encounter of moist flesh")--James seems to be confronting her own fears of decay, disease and death.  It makes for some sometimes uncomfortable reading.

the first edition (Faber and Faber)
It's hard to see how this jacket
 could be any more symbolic!
At the same time, however, James' usual emphasis on domestic architecture and food does have a sort of comforting, cozy effect in The Black Tower (by the by, has anyone ever thought of doing a P. D. James cookbook?).  It's the people, all seemingly imprisoned in their own personal black towers of sickness, misery and depression, that make the book challenging.

Certainly James' writing is as compellingly evocative as ever, benefiting here from compression absent from her novels of the last thirty years or so, which typically sprawl closer to 500 pages.  The Black Tower is just under 350 pages, which allows James the space she needs for scenic description and character development without indulging in the tedium-inducing descriptive digressions and life stories of later novels.

James' characters in The Black Tower do tend to be her usual crew of surpassingly unhappy, extremely well-spoken middle- and upper-middle-class professionals (with the odd--and very odd he is!--servant thrown in).

Here's one gent in off-the-cuff conversation:

Basically he's kind and well-meaning, and at least he's spent his own personal fortune at Toynton Grange. In this age of noisy and self-indulgent commitment when the first principle of private or public protest is that it mustn't relate to anything for which the protestor can be held in the least responsible or involve him in the slightest personal sacrifice that, at least, in his favor.

Nice rhetoric for a formal speech or essay, yes, but are people really that eloquent off the top of their heads?  I wouldn't mention such a point normally, but P. D. James does make a great show of how putatively realistic her novels are compared with the Golden Agers!  I don't know.

Here's a one-off from another character: "I don't need a phallic symbol erected by a Victorian eccentric to remind me of the skull beneath the skin."  James so much liked that last phrase--which comes from T. S. Eliot--that she used it as the title for a 1982 Cordelia Gray detective novel.  Of course both the quoted characters are gay men and in P. D. James novels gay men customarily sound like they are auditioning for parts in Noel Coward plays.  These lads are always "on" if you know what I mean.

Despite such carping on my part, I think The Black Tower is a masterful mystery tale.  Not only is it elegantly written, emotionally moving and powerfully atmospheric, it is an authentically fair play detective novel--no small thing, even in 1975!

Coming for Friday, my forgotten novel choice, The Bloody Tower (1938) by John Rhode.

Pitts' Folly (1853), Uniontown, Alabama (photograph 1936)
you must admit this would make a great setting for a murder mystery


  1. When I saw Follies in the title of this post I thought you meant "folly" as in a foolish mistake!

    THE BLACK TOWER is the frist P. D. James novel I read and to this the only one I have read from start to finish. It was sort of a chore to get through I recall. I read it when it first came out so I was still in high school. I only remember the atmospheric, intensely Gothic, setting and nothing else. I have enjoyed several of the TV adapatations of James' novels but I never read another of her books after THE BLACK TOWER so many decades ago.

  2. I've long been fascinated by the "folly" John, and love mysteries that make use of them.

    I read The Black Tower back in the 1990s. The title grabbed me. It's probably in my top three by her. I've read almost all her books, but tend to like the earlier (shorter) ones best. I've never accepted the view that in fiction the more pages the better.