Sunday, March 19, 2023

Detections and Discursions: PD James' Devices and Desires (1989), Book the Last

"It's very satisfying to the human ego to discover the truth; ask Adam Dalgliesh.  It's even more satisfying to human vanity to imagine you can avenge the innocent, restore the past, vindicate the right.  But you can't. The dead stay dead."

"Life has always been unsatisfactory for most people for most of the time.  The world isn't designed for our satisfaction.  That's no reason for trying to pull it down about our ears."

"Can we ever break free of the devices and desires of our own hearts?"

--lines from Devices and Desires (1989), by PD James

With the Crime Queens of Golden and Silver Ages of Detection--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, PD James and Ruth Rendell are the most mentioned, although other names pop as well, most commonly Josephine Tey--article writers occasionally found the need to ask the question why these "nice British women" felt compelled to write about murder?  Perhaps the answer is that they weren't so nice!  Or, more accurately, perhaps there were darker undercurrents in their own lives which found outlets in the writing of crime fiction.  

I'm not sure how "nice" the British crime writing men were, either, but the question never seemed to get asked why men wrote of bloody murder.  Apparently in some quarters it just wasn't considered ladylike.  Some said the same thing about the nineteenth-century sensation novel, though plenteous proper Victorian misses wrote (and read) them.  

I don't know how many crime writers of the Golden Age necessarily were "nice," really.  One I feel sure of was pious Freeman Wills Crofts, although even he had an understanding, informed by his devout Christian faith, of the sin of greed.  "For the love of money is the root of all evil," runs the mantra of many a Crofts crime novel, "which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

The true test of niceness, I suppose, is how it withstands the slings and arrows of those many sorrows. In other words, it is harder to be keep the milk of human kindness from curdling somewhat when one is miserably unhappy.  And certainly the Crime Queens all had travails to deal with in their lives.  Agatha Christie might have seemed to have  had the perfect Victorian/Edwardian upbringing, but then when the Great War commenced she married an extremely handsome man who a dozen years later with his marital unfaithfulness broke her heart and harmed her mind, leading to her infamous fugue episode, the brief disappearance which in England became a nine days' wonder (or was it ten).  Some have argued the ingenious mystery writer deliberately staged her own disappearance in a Gone Girlish act of revenge against her errant spouse.  

Margery Allingham married a handsome man, a childhood friend, who turned out to be a compulsive philanderer and is said to have been physically violent with her on occasion.  Dorothy L. Sayers fell desperately in love with free thinking Jewish writer John Cournos, who would not marry her, and, after having had an illegitimate child as a result of a rebound affair with a certain man in the motor trade (really), she instead wed yet another man who proved rather an inadequate substitute.  

A lot of people were surprised in later years to find that the increasingly girthful and androgynous-looking Sayers had ever married at all.  The chatty and indiscreet mystery writer Christianna Brand bluntly pronounced that upon meeting Sayers she had assumed the elder author was a "butch."  Ashamed of her social origins, Ngaio Marsh led a circumspect life of intense privacy (her second biographer argues that she was a closeted lesbian), as if she was afraid to deal with strong emotions.  Golden Age detective novels, as originally conceived, were well designed for such authors, who wanted to distance themselves from the all-too-real trauma of death and disordered emotions by making light of murder.  

But Sayers, who fictionalized some of her romantic travails with Cournos in her detective novel Strong Poison (1930) (the one which introduced her alter ego Harriet Vane), began preaching in the Thirties that death was not just the game that she and others had mirthfully played, and that crime fiction should reflect to some degree the emotions of real life.  Her detective novels Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) were supposed to reflect this.  Both Allingham and Christie also wrote some detective novels that reflected realer, grimmer life more fully.  (Marsh not so much in my view.)  

So when PD James and Ruth Rendell began publishing putatively "realistic" English detective fiction in the 1960s, it was not as if they were treading entirely new ground.  Christie's non-series detective novel Ordeal by Innocence (1958), actually written around the same time as James' debut novel Cover Her Face, might actually be a James or Rendell novel, arguably, in terms of its darker subject matter.  Allingham's Hide My Eyes, from the same year, paints a compelling, frightening picture of the consequences of sticking one's head in the sand rather than facing up to unpleasant truths.  

I think the early Crime Queens, just like the later ones, did sometimes draw on darker events in their own lives when writing their crime fiction.    Certainly there is no question that PD James did.  

PD James looks out over the sea

Born in 1920, at the very dawn of the Golden Age of detective fiction, James was the product of an unhappy marriage, and her troubled mother was institutionalized when James was but a teenager.  Despite being an obviously brilliant person, James had to leave school at age sixteen and take on work.  Then she married just five years later, five days past her 21st birthday, to a man who would return from the war mentally damaged and himself would be institutionalized, like James' mother.  (Before this the couple had two daughters together.) He would spend the next two decades in and out of institutions, dying by his own hand in 1964.

Having two young children to care for, James entered the civil service bureaucracy after World War Two and achieved considerable distinction in this field.  She did not start writing her first detective novel until the late 1950s, when she was nearly forty, telling herself that it was now or never.  It is no wonder that as a teenager she was drawn to reading detective fiction, including her idol Dorothy L. Sayers, as a form of escape, nor is it a surprise that she was fascinated with death.  Instead of distancing herself from the disturbance of death in her fiction, however, she embraced it.  She also put a lot of herself, I am convinced, into her primary series detective, Adam Dagliesh, as well as other characters.  

I've read all but the last couple of PD James mysteries (I've started the penultimate one, The Private Patient, twice but have never finished it--not because it was bad, but just because other things came up), and there are definite common qualities to her books, reflective of the author.  Let's list some:

The primary characters tend to be unhappy high level bureaucrats or other professionals, reflecting James' own personal background.  They have replaced the landed gentry of the Golden Age.  James thought her books much more representative of British society than GA detective novels, but were they, really?  Her professionals typically are improbably eloquent, speechifying in long, perfectly composed paragraphs, and quite snobbish and intellectually arrogant.  Honestly, Agatha Christie, even with her gentry types and condescension to servants, still comes off as more of an "everywoman" than James, in terms of her portrayal of characters, especially her village types.  Interestingly, James could do "village types" quite  well, when she chose to do so.  Perhaps she shied away from the Christie comparison.  

Religious themes are prominent, especially in the later books.  There will be at least one traditionalist Anglican type character, whose faith may be lost or weakening, but who nevertheless stoically goes through the forms of faith in order to escape from falling into the bottomless pit of sheer nihilism.  There's a British stiff upper lipness to it all.  I think this was very close to James' own religious view.

Left Wing radicals are pretty much objectionable nuisances and nutcases who hector inoffensive traditionalists (like James) with their toxic mantras of "political correctness," today known as "wokeness."  This is in the books from the Eighties onward and it's very similar to the Golden Age stereotype of the Leftists of that day.  

Her "better" people are intensely private, despising the conscious airing of emotions and often disdaining even physical contact with others.  Certainly Dalgliesh is like this.  Stiff upper lip again!  I have a lot easier time imagining Lord Peter Wimsey having sex than Adam Dalgiesh.

People's worth can be identified by the interior decoration of their homes.  A worthwhile person will have lots of books and some art, preferably original work by a known artist, in their homes, usually hanging over--to use James' favorite word--"elegant" (preferably Adam) mantelpieces.  They will grind coffee beans to make coffee and never dare have instant in the house.  They will make fresh squeezed orange juice.  Women will frequently bake their own bread.  They listen to classical  music and hate rock., or pop as they call it.  Regrettably, none of these activities will actually make them happy, but still it signifies their worth as human beings.

Middle class people in trade are often looked down upon for their lack of intellectual worth, just like in many GA detective novels, although more humble country people, especially parsons, tend to be admired.  Charwomen, aka cleaners, are quirky and colorful and comic relief, just like in the Golden Age.  

Acne, or spots as the English say, is/are the stigmata of a weak character.

Near the end of the novel someone will confront the killer with the truth and the two of them will then sit down for a nice, eloquent philosophical discussion about the ethics of murder.  Earlier in the novel several characters will pompously debate some current issue, like abortion or nuclear power or church reform.

James' favorite word is "elegant," while she also loves the words egregious (as in egregiously presumptive), atavistic/atavism, carapace and exophthalmic (i.e., bulging eyes).  People in her books "go to bed" with each other or they "make love," but they never "have sex" or, God forbid, "screw" or "fuck."  Fucking is for the masses, apparently.

Adults drink Ovaltine, cocoa or some milky non-caffeinated drink before going to bed (really going to bed, not having sex).  In one book even though it's 1988 a detective inspector still takes this as a given.  

James will never split an infinitive!

Despite James' insistence that her work was much more "credible" and less snobbish than GA detective fiction, I think that there actually are quite a few similarities between her writing and that of the Golden Age generation, as much of the above indicates.  This is one of the things I want to look at in my review of James eighth Adam Dalgliesh detective novel, Devices and Desires (1989), which I will now finally commence below, after this Jamesian introductory discursion.

PD James and Adam Dalgliesh (actor Roy Marsden)

In this novel Dalgliesh takes leave from Scotland Yard and goes to rural Norfolk to tend to the estate of his recently deceased spinster aunt, Jane Dalgliesh, who appeared earlier as a murder suspect in the third novel in the series, Unnatural Causes (1967).  I like this sort of connectivity in mystery series, even if it feels a bit off here, when you think about it.  

Jane Dalgliesh lived on the Suffolk coast in Causes, but we are told she moved to Norfolk five years previous to the events in D&D, after inheriting a converted windmill.  We later find that she had a fiance who died in the Great War, which surely would make Jane in her late eighties when she died.  (The novel is explicitly set in 1988.)  So when she moved to live alone in a rural norfolk windmill, she was, what, 83?  Hardy lady!  Of course the Dalglieshes do so very much value their privacy.  James herself lived to 94 and remained pretty independent, evidently, to the end.  She passed away in her sleep, an easier quietus than her friend Ruth Rendell, a stroke victim, had sadly to bear not long afterward.  

Anyway, it just so happens that there is a serial killer, nicknamed The Whistler, who is active in the very same area!  The novel opens with the foul fiend committing his fourth fatal strangling of a woman.  It's a very effectively drawn sequence and shows that James could have written an excellent serial killer thriller, had she chosen to do so.  But she did not: Rest assured, traditionalists, that this is a traditional detective novel (though see below about the regrettable thriller subplot of another sort).  

James limns her setting quite evocatively, I must allow.  As usual with James, buildings are important.  Here we have an old Victorian rectory (the church is serviced has been pulled down), a ruined Benedictine monastery, Dalgliesh's windmill (he was sole heir to his aunt's ample fortune, lucky sod) and, more incongruously, a nuclear power plant! The main characters in the novel are, aside from AD:

PD James hits the top of the pops.

Terry Rickards, local Detective Inspector, a decent man who respects Adam Dalgliesh but resents how AD dressed him down a dozen years ago when he was in the Yard.  Currently Rickards is stressed because his pregnant wife Susie has gone home to be with his meddlesome mother,-in-law on account of the depredations of The Whistler.

Rickards' detective sergeant, Stuart Oliphant, who is rather a nasty bully.  

Alex Mair, head honcho at the nuclear power plant.

Alex's sister, Alice Mair, a noted cookbook author.  She and AD, who has recently published a new book of poetry, have the same publisher as James, Faber & Faber!

Meg Dennison, a forcibly retired, widowed schoolteacher from London who came to this corner of Norfolk to served as housekeeper for the elderly Copleys, a retired Anglican minister and his wife.  

Neil Pascoe, a graduate student on a grant who rather than working on his dissertation or what have you, has formed a local anti nuclear power group, People Against Nuclear Power, or PANUP, and thrown himself wholesale into left wing activism.  

Amy Camm, a mother with an illegitimate baby named Timmy who is living with Neil, though the two are not having, and have never had, sexual relations.  Just what is Amy up to?

Ryan Blaney, an artist with four children, the eldest of whom is fifteen-year-old Theresa, whose wife has recently died.  Since her mother's sad demise Theresa, like James after her mother was institutionalized, has been having to take care of her siblings.

Hilary Robarts, an official at the nuclear power station and, well, there's no other way to put it, an absolute bitch.  She's also Alex's lover, or mistress as everyone calls her, though Alex has tired of her.

Caroline Amphlett, Alex's beautiful, highly competent and completely impersonal personal assistant.

Jonathan Reeves, Caroline's inadequate, spotty boyfriend, who also works at the power plant.

The late Toby Gledhill, a beautiful, brilliant young nuclear scientist at the power station who deliberately took a header there to his untimely death.  Why?  

converted East Anglian windmill
So, do you have all that?  Of course hateful Hilary is the novel's main murderee and she spends the first 200 pages of the novel needlessly provoking a bunch of people to want to kill her, in the manner of her kind. There's the Blaneys, whom Hilary is threatening to throw out of their cottage, which she owns; Neil Pascoe and Amy Camm, on account of Hilary threatening to sue Neil for libel; Alex, because Hilary is demanding that he marry and give her a child (he made her abort the last one, she claims); Alice, because she is very close to her brother, with whom she lives (he stopped her father from sexually abusing her, for good and all).  And there may well be others too.  What about Tony Gledhill's suicide, for example?

It takes about 200 pages actually to get to Hilary's murder.  Many a detective novel would have begun and ended by then, but PD James has lots of backstory to get through.  There is also the matter of The Whistler, who kills a fifth woman before finally killing himself, not long before the slaying of Hilary, in the very same manner as The Whistler's victims!  

Yes, it seems that someone with a private agenda killed Hilary and tried to make it look like it was really  The Whistler.  This limits the list of suspects, seemingly, to people who attended a dinner party at the Mairs where The Whistler's MO was revealed.  (He stuffed his victims' public hair into their mouths and carved an "L" on each dead woman's forehead.)  These were the Mairs (Alice did the cooking), Meg Dennison and Miles Lessingham, along with Theresa Blaney, who assisted with the cooking.  The late Hilary was there as well, along with the great AD himself.  AD even discovers the body.  Hey, James had to give him something to do in the book, since he's not leading the investigation this time!

So from one perspective all the serial killer stuff is a colossal waste of time (we are even told his mother was to blame for the murders, which could not get more trite), but on the other hand it's a pretty neat way of limiting the circle of suspects.  But does it???

Up till this point I was pretty engaged with the story, which does have beautifully written passages, but then James unleashes this thrillerish whale of a red herring, as it were, concerning the nature of which I will say nothing though I really want to, which to me just felt like a massive waste of time. This takes up much of the novel's Books V and VI and I honestly would have preferred to have it excised.  This sort of action material, more suited to crime thrillers in my view, crops up frequently in James' later novels.  It's like she wrote them with one eye toward their inevitable television adaptations for the Dalgliesh detective series.  

Still there's one of those classic James confrontations between the murderer and the person who knows the truth, as well as a bittersweet ending which lingers in my mind.  James may insist that only in the Golden Age mysteries is order restored, but D&D's finis is pretty optimistic by James' standards, especially compared with her previous novel, A Taste for Death.  The mystery plot of D&D is far from ingenious, to my mind, but I probably would rate the novel pretty highly were it not for the implausible thrillerish subplot.  Also, aspects of the solution are not really fairly clued in my view.

D&D seems, like many of James' novels (perhaps all of them), to be about the struggle of rational human beings to get by in a fallen and increasingly faithless world.  Intelligent beings may rationalize the outrageous act of murder, but in fact it's the gravest of sins in James' eyes and in those of her fictional avatars.  There is a deep moral sense to James' work, a quality she shared with Agatha Christie, though James never gave Christie credit for this.  It lends a measure of gravitas and power to her work.

Even though James' surrogates, like Dalgliesh, often evince a distaste for humanity on a physical level they recognize the basic right to life with which each of us is instilled presumably, in James' eyes, by the Creator  Witnessing the sniveling of Neil Pascoe, AD thinks censoriously "how unattractive it was, the self-absorption of the deeply unhappy."  He reflects how he himself is "good with the words"--he is a published and lauded poet, after all--but "[w]hat he found difficult was what came so spontaneously to the truly generous at heart: the willingness to touch and be touched."  No less an entity than Jesus, we should remember, washed other people's feet.

But AD values his privacy so highly.  Late in her life James discounted the notion that anyone would dare write a biography of her.  How egregiously presumptuous an invasion of her privacy that would have been!  And nearly a decade after her death no one yet has.  Her own autobiographical fragment, Time to be in Earnest, seems to conceal as much as it reveals.

Up in his aunt's windmill (now his), AD actually incinerates Great War era photos of his aunt and her soldier fiance, who tragically did not survive the conflict.  AD thinks of his gazing at these old mementos of the dead past as "a voyeurism which in [his aunt's] life would have been repugnant to them both."  Why?  This does seem to me to represent a hypersensitive desire for privacy.  Had I been Dalgliesh I would have saved those photos for posterity.  No man is an island!

Having with Faber & Faber just published a new book of poems, A Case to Answer, to great critical acclaim and sales success (he's not just a poet, but a remunerative one!), Dalgliesh himself thinks wonderingly how "solitude was essential to him.  He couldn't tolerate twenty-four hours in which the greater part wasn't spent entirely alone.  But some change in himself, the inexorable years, success, the return of his poetry, perhaps the tentative beginnings of love, seemed to be making him sociable."  James herself was achieving great success at this time, of course, and had become fast friends with Ruth Rendell--it was probably one of her greatest friendships in a life that seems to have been for decades singularly devoid of real intimacy.

Gal Pals
PD James and Ruth Rendell around the time of the publication of Devices and Desires

Another James stand-in, the conservative churchgoing widow Meg Dennison, prizes her friendship with Alice Mair and tries to keep to her Christian faith, even though her sufferings have suffused her with doubts.  As a teacher in London she lost her post when she outraged racial militants by referring to the the "blackboard" as such, rather than calling it a "chalkboard," and by refusing to take a racial sensitivity course.  Did anything like this every really happen?  Poor Alice, a victim of PC culture!  What would James have said about "wokeness"?  

Of her salving friendship with Alice Mair, Meg thinks gratefully of "the comfort of a close, undemanding, asexual companionship with another woman."  After her schoolteacher husband's tragic death while saving a student from drowning, "she had walked in darkness like an automaton through a deep and narrow canyon of grief in which all her energies, all her physical strength, had been husbanded to get through each day....Even her Christianity was of little help.  she didn't reject it, but it had become irrelevant, its comfort only a candle which served fitfully to illume the dark."  

It is hard not to see such a character as something of a self-portrait, except that James, rather than modestly retire to housekeep obscurely in Norfolk, remained in London and became one of England's best-selling novelists.  Alice Mair is something of a self-portrait too, I suspect, capturing other aspects of James' own self.  "She's a successful professional writer," Dalgleish huffily tells Rickards when he suggests that Alice--a spinster living with her brother who "had no other outlet for her emotions"--might have killed Alex's mistress Hilary out of overmastering jealousy.  "I imagine that success provides its own form of emotional fulfillment, assuming she needs it."  Indeed!  I imagine I would find writing #1 bestselling novels quite fulfilling myself.  

When Meg tells of her husband's death to the unsentimental and atheistic Alice Mair,  the latter tartly responds: "It would be perfectly natural to hope that your husband hadn't died for someone second-rate."  Meg regretfully admits that the boy wasn't even that, but rather "a bully and rather stupid....He was spotty, too."  Then she quickly adds: "oh dear, that wasn't his fault, I don't why I even mentioned it."  Indeed, Meg: you really should know that spots are not an index of character.

But then throughout the James books acne seems to afflict the weak and (mostly) worthless.  Poor pallid, spotty Jonathan Reeves, dominated by his beautiful, confident girlfriend Caroline, comes of banal middle class trade origins (his father is a carpet salesman)--naturally the family is Chapel!  Jonathan wretchedly thinks to himself: "We can't be as ordinary, as dull as we seem."  But they are, sadly.  Hoity-toity Alex Mair sneeringly dismissed Jonathan as "an acned nonentity."  He simply can't imagine why Caroline is wasting her time on him.

People are their environments in James books, seemingly, so that a dully furnished house signifies dully souled people.  The Reeves family, Caroline and Hilary herself damningly all live in uninterestingly decorated homes, in contrast with Jane Dalgliesh's fascinating windmill, where AD has taken up abode for a time.  Poor bourgeois DI Rickards, a former Dalgleish acolyte, can't help enviously contrasting his own banally furnished home (courtesy of Susie, who won school medals for "neatness and needlework") with that damn windmill: "Dalgliesh's furniture was old, polished by centuries of use...the paintings were real oils, genuine water-colours...."

Move on, nothing erotic to see here!

Up in the windmill, Dalgliesh, filled with "gentle melancholy," listens to Edward Elgar's great cello concerto, thinking how its "plaintive notes" evoke "those long, hot Edwardian summers...the peace, the certainty, the optimism of the England into which his aunt had been born."  This is not what I get out of Elgar's cello concerto (I think of the tragic, atrocious carnage of the First World War that Edwardian pride and pomposity led Europe into); but then I like, and grew up on, Eighties rock music.  

Contrarily, when Dalgliesh turns on the tube he is utterly disgusted by a "jerking pop star...wielding his guitar...his parodic gyrations so grotesque that it was difficult to to see that even the besotted young could find them erotic."  

Take that, Morrissey!  James was old enough to be my grandmother and obviously did not want her MTV, thank you, which helps explain why her characters under thirty usually aren't that convincing.

When I read James' crime fiction, I am fascinated by what I see revealed of her own personality, her intrinsic being.  I think that her Christian faith blessedly saved her from falling into outer darkness after her myriad personal sufferings, but that, she, like many of us, had a "darker side," as it were, which she used her writing to explore.  No Patricia Highsmith was she, surely, for she was not a sociopathic type and she did not in the end identify with murderers; but possibly there was some sense of sinister sisterhood under their skins.  James understood the fatal temptation to murder.  Perhaps this is why her work veers so often toward gloom.

It's a shame in a way, because there is a lot of evidence that James had a warm and winning aspect to her personality: charm, a sense of humor, kindness, love even.  She allows some of this sunlight to filter into Devices and Desires in a long, ingratiating chapter in which Rickards and Sergeant Oliphant interview the middle class, middle aged couple who runs the local pub, George and Doris Jago.  They are refreshingly normal, happy, uncomplicated people--Christiesque village people--and it's such a relief to be in their company for a spell and away from all those the haughty, well-educated yet miserable white-collar, Oxbridge professionals.  

I have no doubt in my mind PD James could have been a true successor to Agatha Christie, had her life experiences inclined her in that direction.  But James was also responding to the temper of the time; and what many people then wanted were sprawling, nearly 200,000 word mysteries filled with morose murder melodrama.  Devices and Desires was a #1 bestseller in the United States, one week topping Dean Koontz, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel and Gore Vidal (see pic above right).  This is all well and good, but it my view James had done it better two decades earlier in Shroud for a Nightingale, with something like half the wordage.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Classic Fridays--Details and Digressions: PD James' Devices and Desires (1989), Book the First

When as a young teen, around 14 or 15, I decided that I wanted to start reading "Great Literature," I went looking for the longest book I could find, which turned out to be American author Theodore Dreiser's sprawling 1925 sociopolitical tract,  An American Tragedy.  The prose was unmemorable, but the plot itself, about an ambitious young man trying to achieve to American dream who ends up on trial for murder, grips.  (The book was filmed in 1951 as A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, all of whom were at their peak beauty at the time.)  I suppose one could almost call An American Tragedy a crime novel.  After all at about 225,000 words it's not all that much longer than some of the later sprawling PD James crime novels, like Devices and Desires.

PD James had been publishing mysteries for eighteen years when she finally hit it really big in 1980 with a non-series crime thriller, Innocent Blood.  Personally this is one of my least favorite James novels, but it struck a chord with the public, especially in the United States, which had proved up till then a bit more resistant to her charms than the UK had.  James did not even succeed at finding an American publisher for her first and second detective novels--Cover Her Face (1962) and A Mind to Murder (1963), until 1966 and 1967, respectively. I have to wonder whether she resolved to write her third detective novel, Unnatural Causes (1967), because she finally was getting published in the States, the holy grail of British crime writers.  Maybe not though--after all she did have a significant day job!

In any event, after the success of Innocent Blood, James, now a bestselling novelist--became afflicted, like her role model Dorothy L. Sayers before her, with novelitis: the urge to write a crime novel that really had Things To Say about society, just like a mainstream novel.  James' next crime novels--The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), A Taste for Death (1986) and Devices and Desires (1989)--were Really Long Books.  I don't know about Skull, an extravagant, long-winded Gothic pastiche and the second of the two Cordelia Grey mysteries--but Taste and Devices are not all that far off 200,000 words by my count, which at that time were extraordinary lengths for mystery novels.  Both feature James' series sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, who had not headlined one of her novels since 1977; and they still stand, I think, as the best reviewed crime novels of her career, with many critics avowing that James was not only the new "Queen of Crime," but that she had, yes, transcended to crime fiction genre like a levitationist, writing mysteries that that rose above "mere puzzles" and possessed the merits of True Literature.

Personally I never much liked A Taste for Death.  James does have things to say about transcending the lower class strata in Britain, through her character of striving, humbly born--and rather earnest and dull--police sergeant Kate Miskin, along with a quite unlikeable brother and sister who are suspects in a double murder at a church; yet I never felt the book was much as a mystery, nor did I find the characters, with a couple of exceptions, all that compelling.  (I quite liked the churchgoing sixty-something spinster and the lower class street waif boy whom she befriends, to be sure.  This is a poignant story line, but frustrating for me because I think the characters could have used a novel--a non-criminous one--all to themselves.)

"PD James does it again!"
--Larry King

I recall seeing a paperback copy of Devices and Desires way back in 1991 that carried a blurb at the top of the cover from mundane media personality Larry King: "Brilliant...wonderful.  P. D. James does it again!"  Americans of my age doubtlessly recall the late Larry King's long-running CNN television interview show on Saturday nights, along with nighttime radio show and his daily column in the once ubiquitous American "McPaper" USA Today.  In this column Larry would string together, like a string of imitation pearls before swine, various thoughts, like "You know, you just can't beat a good hot dog!" or "There's nothing like a lazy Sunday." or "I think Blondes really do have more fun."  I thought at the time, well it shows how James has made it that she has caught Larry King's eye ("P. D. James has done it again!"), but does this really mean she is writing Great Literature, let alone good mysteries?  

I had started reading mysteries again in 1991, but I was reading my new discovery John Dickson Carr and Christies I had missed and Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.  I did, however, go back and read the older PD James mysteries from the Sixties and Seventies and I quite liked most of them.  Some I thought were brilliant.  When I did read a new James--Original Sin (1994)--it struck me as well-written but too long and its plot seemed egregiously derivative of a Nicholas Blake detective novel.  (I know of two other bloggers who were struck the same way as I by the Blake connection.)  

Over the years I slogged through the succession of James' bloody murder behemoths--A Certain Justice (1997), Death in Holy Orders (2001), The Murder Room (2003), The Lighthouse (2005)--and found that her crime writing was yielding diminishing returns.  The characters, settings, situations had become formulaic--James formulaic--without offering much real ingenuity in plotting.  "Good prose" could only cover up so much in a mystery, in my view, and some of James' prose was getting rather starchy anyway.  There's lots of plot in her books, yes, but in the later books it's lacking the fleet genius of Christie and her clever company or even that of the earlier James.  Like many other longtime writers James had fallen into repeating herself and lacked the same zest of early invention.  

I still have yet to read The Private Patient (2008), James' final Adam Dalgliesh novel--I have held off for fifteen years now--and I had never gotten around to taking up Devices and Desires--that is, until now.  Martin Edwards says this is the best James crime novel.  Is he right?

Well, I have made it through the first three books (yes, books, I said; D&D is like the Crime Torah or something) amounting to 200 pages, about forty percent of the way.  And, despite all the author's details and digressions--I have been rather enjoying it so far.  I'm trying to give it something of the benefit of the doubt by reminding myself that some of the narrative devices, like the long flashback character sketches and the diatribes about "political correctness," were comparatively new for her at this time.  I shall try to go into more detail next week.  For now, take this thousand word introduction as Book the First, shall we say.  So sayeth the Tramp.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Death of a Publisher: Rupert Heath (1968-2023)

My friend, the publisher Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press, has died.  We had worked together on projects on projects for nearly a decade now.  Some background:

Back in September 2014 I was a bit down in the dumps.  My Passing Tramp blog had been up for nearly three full years, since November 2011, and my book Masters of the Humdrums Mystery, which attempted to get discussions of crime fiction beyond the increasingly barren (and false) division between the Crime Queens in England and the hard-boiled boys in the United States, had been published a year later.  I knew there was so much vintage crime fiction, of all stripes, waiting to be rediscovered.  But it was starting to feel like I had been passed by.  I had my blog and my book, published by a minor scholarly press, but no really large-scale publishing forum, like Sarah Weinman, whose anthology of domestic suspense tales by mid-century women writers, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, had been published the year before, or Martin Edwards, who was writing introductions for the British Library's classic crime reissues.  

And then came the Farjeon Affair.  Literally the first post on my blog, on November 22, 2011, was about Golden Age thriller writer Jefferson Farjeon, as my blog was named in honor of his tramp sleuth of sorts, Ben, and the amusing convention in GA mysteries, desperately grasped by country house weekend guests suspected of having bludgeoned their host in his library, that a passing tramp must have done the foul deed.  I posted again about Farjeon and my favorite Farjeon crime novels just four days later, then, one day after Christmas, in a post entitled "A Late Christmas Number," I posted about Jefferson Farjeon's 1937 Christmas thriller Mystery in White.  Little did I know where this would go!  Had I but known....

I remember googling about Farjeon back in those days and there was virtually nothing about him on the internet, certainly nothing about Mystery in White.  I had been collecting his books for over a decade and was a great fan of his, having even travelled to visit the marvelous home of his famous American actor grandfather, Joe Jefferson, in Louisiana.  Sadly I was not invited to have any role when, three years later in September 2014, a major concern published a new edition Mystery in White.  Not only that, but my key, indeed essential, part in having publicized the book in the first place was never, to my knowledge, acknowledged anywhere.  That the book went on to become in the UK a seasonal bestseller over Christmas made the situation even more bittersweet for me--more bitter than sweet, really.  There's only so much satisfaction you can get from being essentially alone in knowing that you were right.

But it was also in September 2014 that I received a message from a man named Rupert Heath, in the form of a comment left on my blog.  (I don't know now on which post the comment appeared.)  I emailed him and this was his reply:

Rupert Heath

From: Rupert Heath

Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2014 3:17 PM
To: curt evans
Subject: Re: Golden Age Reprints

Thanks for your swift reply Curt.

I was just reading your superb essay on Rupert Croft-Cooke 'The Man Who Was Leo Bruce', which was what prompted me to contact you. As it happens I've just been doing some detective work myself, making contact with RCC's estate (in the form of his secretary and companion Joseph, who is still alive - 90 - and living in India). 

As you know the Leo Bruces have been kept in print by Academy Chicago, who were recently bought by Chicago Review Press. Believe it or not, Academy had lost contact details for the estate years ago and had a rather large check for royalties waiting for him. So I found Joseph for them, and in return I am hoping they will allow me to publish ebooks of the Leo Bruce novels, at least outside North America. I consider him to be in the executive class of the golden age mystery writers and ridiculously underrated today.

I'd be really interested to know who you might recommend we track down for our list, or which estates you might have had communication with. One problem we have is that estates controlled by big agencies (which is not a few of them) are often inaccessible - the big agencies tend to have their own agenda regarding the licensing of their backlist (often partnering with big publishers like Random House) so it's hard to obtain rights on a case by case basis.

Other than Rufus King, I was intrigued by the post-golden age novelist Sylvia Angus who seems to be equally forgotten. I've only read DEAD TO RITES (I believe there are only 3 novels by her) but found it very much in the spirit of Agatha Christie in various ways. She's not one of the greats, but I think her novels would find a readership today.



On Wed, Sep 17, 2014 at 8:57 PM, curt evans wrote:

Dear Rupert Heath,

I am the blogger The Passing Tramp and am responding to the message you left me about reprinting Golden Age works. Let me know how I can help. In some cases I know literary agents and heirs and I certainly know books!



It was the beginning of a beautiful working relationship--and a friendship.  It meant so much at that time to have someone to work with, someone who was really at the top of his game and respected me too.  I didn't have any doubt about my knowledge or my writing ability (I'm not modest in that respect), but I just didn't have the connections others had and I was afraid I was going to be doomed to comparative obscurity.  Rupert really helped save me from that.  Since then I have been able to work with other presses, writing introductions (besides Coachwhip, who was my first): Stark House and Moonstone and even HarperCollins for one gig and Mysterious Press for a couple.  And I got a column with Crimereads, wrote for the last issue of Mystery Scene, edited an Edgar-nominated book, Murder in the Closet, and there's even news about a good publisher that wants to publish a new book by me.

But I don't know where it would have gone without Rupert.  All those reprinting projects we had: all the ER Punshons, all the Christopher Bushes, Ianthe Jerrold, Robin Forsythe, that Victorian miss Annie Haynes who proved so unexpectedly popular, Peter Drax, Patricia Wentworth, Harriet Rutland, Molly Thynne, Moray Dalton, Anne Morice, Alice Campbell, Bristow and Manning and their Invisible Host.  And not to hog everything, The Puzzle Doctor's pet Brian Flynn project has been very popular!

It meant a lot knowing how much Rupert respected my work.  This last December and January I was under a great deal of stress as my 92 year old father was in the hospital four times and ambulances were called out to the house three times.  I won't go into it all, but you will have noticed how my blog posting really dipped then.  During that time I managed to get a set of intros written for a new set of DSP Moray Dalton resissues and an intro to the Hake Talbot novels with a good deal of new information on the author.  On the Dalton intros Rupert had this to say:

The intros so far are uniformly excellent, Curt! I think they may be among the very best you've written for us. And they all give fascinating colour and background to the context of MD's writing, the when and the where.

Working on those new intros/afterwords I really appreciated them more and more - you're a fantastic writer!

On the Hake Talbot:

I think this is magnificent!

I was in communication a lot with Rupert through December into January, when I learned of the sudden health problems of his wife Amanda.  I last communicated with Rupert on Jan. 20 when he let me know things were rapidly declining.  Amanda died five days later and I never heard from him again.  I wrote him about ten days ago, but never heard back.  Yesterday, coming home from a doctor's visit with my Dad I learned that Rupert had died from a massive heart attack.  He was only 54.  He leaves two children.

What do you say to all this?  I just don't know.  I do know working with Rupert was a real lifeline for me, one of the most rewarding things in my life.  I feel we were able to take a place of significance in vintage mystery publishing that I hope will last.  At the moment I don't know the status of the Moray Dalton reissues.  They were all ready to go, I think, and I had been paid for the intros.  About the Hake Talbots, or anything else, I don't know (hadn't been paid for that one).  For now please think of Rupert and his family.  

In one of his last emails to me, he sent me a link to a George Harrison song titled "Deep Blue":

My friend David recently sent me a rare George Harrison song, which I hadn't heard before, but now love. You probably know it.

I hadn't heard it before.  I responded:

Liked the Harrison song, made me want to get that edition of the album.  About his mother dying from cancer yet the song sounds not gloomy at all.

He also commented, drolly it seemed at the time, concerning other family health problems (He didn't even know Amanda had cancer yet, but he referred to her having some sort of infection): 

I am presently expecting to drop dead any second.

I was getting so overwhelmed with my Dad's problems and suffering from an extremely painful herniated disc left over from Christmas.  When Rupert emailed me ten days later to let me know Amanda had inoperable cancer, my Dad was on a ventilator in ICU, after reacting poorly to anaesthesia.  Dad made it out, but Amanda died ten days later.  I look back and I wish I had said more to Rupert at the time.  I have an idea what stress can do the heart; my blood pressure has gone up ten points since last year.  I thought I would be working another two decades with Rupert, my health permitting.  I never imagined anything would happen to him.  We are about the same age, but he just looked so healthy.  

From an English garden

I did tell him how much I appreciated the flowers he sent after my mother's death.  I hope that he read it:

I had to take care of my mother when her breast cancer spread again three years ago.  I remember those flowers you sent, that was actually the only time I ever cried, if you can believe it, I thought how much Mom would have liked those lilies. Really, it was one of the nicest things someone ever did for me. 

Rupert was a good publisher and editor and a good friend.  He was kind and generous and did things he did not have to do.  He meant a lot in my life.  I will miss him terribly.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Cozy Sundays: Death of a Series--MC Beaton's Hamish MacRacket

Novelist MC Beaton, who died on the last day of 2019 at the age of 83, was an extremely prolific writer, and not just of mysteries.  If I counted right, she published, according to Wikipedia, 150 novels, almost half of these belonging to her two most famous mystery series: those about, respectively, Hamish Macbeth (1985-2018, 34 novels) and Agatha Raisin (1992-2019, 30 novels).  

Beaton actually began her fiction writing career (she had been a journalist before that) in the late Seventies, when she was in her early forties, with Regency Romances, having found, by her own declaration, the successors to Georgette Heyer sadly wanting in authenticity.  It takes a certain talent to maintain a successful fiction writing career for over four decades when you are that fecund--about four novels a year over four decades on average.  But this certain talent does not necessarily mean that one has a talent for writing good mysteries.  So the question arises: Was MC Beaton really any good as a mystery writer, whatever her undeniable appeal to many cozy mystery fans?

I recall reading some of Beaton's early Hamish Macbeth mysteries in the 1990s and enjoying them reasonably well. Having perused some of later Hamish Macbeth books more recently, however, I really have to wonder when exactly the series began running out of steam, even on its own humbler level.   

 MC Beaton, of course, is deemed one of the major cozy writers from the last three and a half decades, and that mere word cozy would cause many mystery readers to write her off peremptorily.  While I, like myriad others, don't share this unfair reflexive contempt for the cozy, I do believe that at some point the wheels came off Beaton's crime lorry, as it were, at least as regards the Hamish Macbeth series.  (I haven't yet read any of the later Agatha Raisins.)

The cover painting
by Francis Farmar
is cozier than the book.

I gave decidedly lukewarm reviews to MC Beaton's Hamish Macbeth novels Death of a Travelling Man (1993) and Death of a Bore (2005) here.  What did I think of my two most recent reads by her, of Death of a Valentine (2010) and Death of a Sweep (2011)?  Well, the first one isn't much, really, and the second is, well, simply dire.  It might better have been titled Death of a Series because if the series didn't improve from that point, it bloody well should have been ended.  

Yet Beaton dauntlessly continued writing the damn things for another seven years at a rate of one year--unless it was actually her secretary, R. W. Green, who has been continuing both this and the Agatha Raisin series after Beaton's death, who was composing them in the later years.  But, honestly, these later purported Beatons read like they were written by an aging author who simply was burnt out with the whole thing and was just going through the motions for her large, loyal audience.  

Here ya go!  Here's another one, folks!  Next!

And raking in the dough all the while, I might add.  After all, there may not be variety in the hamburgers served by McDonald's, but those commercial comestibles make the fast food chain a great deal of money.  So did Macbeths for MC Beaton.

I notice on Amazon that the later Beaton book Death of a Sweep, a one-star mystery if there ever were one, gets 4.5 stars based on over a thousand ratings, which tells you all you need to know about what Amazon ratings are worth nowadays.  Either the great majority of Beaton's audience is utterly undiscerning, or the "system" is shamelessly "rigged" with planted reviews, as a certain American reality television star and politician says.

Death of a Valentine is modestly the better of the two books, because it actually tells a coherent story, such as it is.  As any Hamish Macbeth reader will know, the books follow a rigidly set pattern: 

Hamish, a Police Sergeant in the Highlands village of Lochdubh, will have some sort of romantic misadventure and his former girlfriends Elspeth and Priscilla will pop up pointlessly (since the romances never go anywhere).

Hamish will get a constable who will be some manner of a comical fuck-up.

Hamish will take his feral cat Sonsie and his dog Lugs around a few times cause Beaton knew cozy mystery readers like pets in mysteries.

Some ecentirc villagers will put in token appearances.  ("Look the Currie sisters!  Sisters.")

Hamish's corrupt and inept superiors will continue to be corrupt and inept with no real consequences.

Oh, yes, there will be some sort of murder.  Actually, in these later books, a lot of murders!  

However, there won't be much mystery, because plotting a decent mystery apparently required more effort than the busy, aging author wanted to expend.

the American hardcover ed.

In Valentine there is a mystery--who killed the heartless beauty queen with a mail bomb valentine--but the solution is handed to Macbeth on a plate, or rather in a video recorder--surely no one could care one whit about this witless "mystery" peopled by puppets.

Any interest the story possesses comes from the plot about Hamish's increasingly insane constable, Josie McQueen, who it turns out is an obsessed stalker of Hamish, determined to trap him into marrying her.  All of this is weirdly played for laughs even when Josie decides she will drug Hamish with a date rape drug, get him naked and unconscious into bed with her and orgasm ("working herself up," as the author euphemistically puts it) so that "a smell of sex" will be apparent in the morning and Hamish will be honor bound to wed her!

And they call this is a cozy!  It reads more like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (without the rabbit), were that film a French sex farce.  But, I have to admit, there was a certain compelling aspect to this crazy story.  At least it had more suspense than the murder mystery.  I wanted to see mad, jilted Josie get her comeuppance.

And here, by the way, is the description murder of the titular valentine:

Now for that parcel.

There was a tab at the side to rip to get the parcel open.  She tore it across.  A terrific explosion tore apart the kitchen.  Ball bearings and nails, the latter viciously sharpened, tore into her face and body as flames engulfed her.  Perhaps it was a mercy that one of the nails pierced her brain, killing her outright, before the flames really took hold.

Well, that sure is cozy!  The only thing making this not actually horrific is the childish, Sally, Dick and Jane cadence of the endless succession of simple declarative sentences Beatons employs.  (Did Beaton dictate this stuff? I would suspect so.)  See Jane.  See the man knock Jane on the head.  See Jane bleed.  Die, Jane, die!

a swoop of sweeps
Far worse, however, is Death of a Sweep, retitled Death of a Chimney Sweep in the US.  Catch the publishers ever trusting their audience to know what a "sweep" is!  There are at least five murders in it (I lost track), so the only reason the poor dead irrelevant sweep was honored with the title, I'm sure, is because the chimney sweeps have cozy connotations.  Look at Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins! Chim-chim-cher-rie, everyone!  

The sweep isn't even the one whose body is found stuck up the chimney.  The book could just as easily been called Death of a Maid or Death of a Dustman--oh, wait, Beaton used those titles before--or Death of an Innocent Bystander.

Things start off fairly intriguingly, with a shady character hiding out with his mousy wife in the tiny Scottish village of Drim, but as the murders pile up, for no other reason, really, than to goose the story, the whole thing loses conherency.  As much as it's anything, the book is a thriller, with our old friend, effectively, the criminal gang, at work.  Beaton might be following Raymond Chandler's prescription about throwing in a man with a gun when you are stuck, except in Beaton's case it's another body.  

This is the kind of thing best left, really, to Edgar Wallace.  Beaton just meanders all over the place and there's little of the charm people associate with the series, rightly or not, with all this callous bloodletting going on.  (Two of the murdered women are comic snooper types and it's rather disconcerting to see them dispatched so violently.)  Altogether it's just a right bloody mess, neither fish nor fowl and one of the worst so-called mysteries I have ever read.  

MC Beaton always seems to suck me in again for another try--or maybe it's not her so much but those wonderful cozy covers her books get (some of the English ones have those charming paintings by Francis Farmar--but if I do any additional Beaton reading any time soon, I think, it will be Agatha Raisin.  I actually liked the first book in the Raisin series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death.  The characters and setting were better detailed and the mystery, while simple, was a thing of genius compared to the Hamish Macbeths I have read lately.  It's too bad, but apparently Beaton's devoted audience of Hamish MacFans came to demand very little from her in later years--and that is just what she gave them.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Classic Fridays: Dalgliesh (2021), Shroud for a Nightingale

Between-the-wars, or Golden Age, detective fiction remains for many people, no matter how much revising of the canon we do, most strongly epitomized by the Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  The postwar successors to this criminous quartet were most typically deemed to be the deadly duo of PD James and Ruth Rendell, both of whom began publishing mysteries in the early Sixties, when the three surviving Golden Age Crime Queens (Sayers passed away in 1957) were still writing, up through the Eighties and Nineties, their popular heyday, and into the 21st century.  (James died in 2014 and Rendell in 2015.)  

Already by the Seventies publishers were dubbing both James and Rendell, much to the ladies' irritation, the "new Agatha Christie," as if there ever could be two of them, let alone three.  It is my belief that Rendell was actually the better crime writer of the two, but I don't believe she ever enjoyed quite the popularity of James, especially in United States, where James really came to embody the public face of classic British mystery.  Maybe it was her formal grand dame manner, prose and critical pronouncements  (reminiscent of Sayers), her High Tory conservatism (again reminiscent of Sayers), which people came to associate with classic British mystery writing, and her fondness for classic "enclosed" murder settings centered upon forbidding old British buildings.  

In my view Ruth Rendell, a self-professed leftist (though there I think she protested a bit much), was much more of an innovator and a bridge to the future of mystery writing, where James belonged more to the past.  Certainly her attractive loner poet-policeman detective, Inspector Adam Dalgleish, recalls the classic gentleman sleuths of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh rather more Rendell's unprepossessing family man copper Reg Wexford--although AD's moroseness and tragic background--his wife died in childbirth, along with the baby--is reminiscent of the angsty back stories of today's glum cops.  

Dalgliesh detects again: Bertie Carvel

PD James stuck much more to formula in terms of plotting as well, though she argued vigorously that her books had more "credibility" than Golden Age novels in terms of plotting along with more serious emotional resonance.  James came to mystery writing rather late, publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in England at the end of 1962, when she was 42 years old.  

The novel was well-reviewed, with an especially noteworthy brief rave in the Guardian from Francis Iles, aka Anthony Berkeley, in one of his characteristically somewhat snobbish and pedantic reviews: of those extraordinary first novels which seems to step straight into the sophisticated preserves pf the experienced writer, yet retains the newcomers' freshness of is in general so well-written that such solecisms as 'different than' and 'oblivious to' come as a shock.

Why wasn't this review--the first part anyway--ever blurbed by James' publishers?

Despite such high praise (carping about her solecisms aside), James was slow to rise to the top of her field, especially--ironically given her later success there--in the United States.  Four years elapsed before Cover Her Face even found a publisher in the US, despite, or perhaps because of, its determined traditionalism as a country house and village mystery.  Both Christie and Marsh were very much active back then (Allingham would die in 1966 and she hadn't written a traditional mystery in years) and perhaps it was felt by some that this sort of mystery was still their province.  (In the UK, James' book was often reviewed alongside Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.)

When Cover Her Face was finally published in the US, it received more mixed reviews than it had in the UK, some of them very favorable, some dismissive, like this palpably bored  and frustrated one from the Hartford Courant:

....a thin story by a new writer who goes on and on and on and on.  She has supposedly finished a second and is working on a third novel--someone should shorten them.

The irony here is delicious, as James' novels to the contrary started getting longer and longer and longer and longer.  Cover Her Face is about 85,000 words; A Taste for Death (1986), perhaps James' most critically praised novel, adds 100,000 words to that total to make a book closing in on 200,000 words!  What would the Hartford Courant reviewer have said to that?

Even worse, Cover Her Face actually was panned by New York Times crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher, who deemed Patricia Moyes a much more notable English crime writer.  Meaning no disrespect to Moyes, whom I enjoy, how did that judgment turn out?  

The next year Boucher gave a better review to James' second novel A Mind for Murder, originally published in the UK in 1963, but even that one he condemned on account of what he deemed "the author's unfortunate fondness for excess wordage."  Boucher died a year later.  Little did he know how excessive that fondness would become!

Roy Marsden as AD
developed quite a fan following
during the Eighties and Nineties

But despite these criticisms James persevered and her popularity and critical acclaim ascended slowly but surely on both sides of the Atlantic.  Yet it was not until 1980, with the huge success of her non-series crime thriller Innocent Blood, that James really hit the big time.  

Not long afterward British television commenced making a Dalgliesh mystery series, the first installment of which, an adaptation of Death of an Expert Witness, premiered in 1983.  This series, starring Roy Marsden as AD, adapted all ten of the then published Dalgleish novels, running for fifteen years, until 1998.  After Marsden was replaced with Martin Shaw, two more AD novel adaptations would follow in 2003 and 2004, of The Murder Room and Death in Holy Orders, leaving only the last two James novels, The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, unadapted.

In 2021, seven years after James' death at the age of 94 and and seventeen years after the appearance of the last AD novel adaptation, a new Dalgliesh series, titled appropriately enough, Dalgliesh, aired adaptations of the three James novels: Shroud for a Nightingale, The Black Tower and A Taste for Death.  The series was a popular success and has been picked up for two more seasons, the next one airing this April, I believe.  

So the question finally arrives: did the first season do justice to James?  

The series, set in the Seventies (1975), stars Bertie Carvel, 43 at the time of filming, as AD, Jeremy Irvine, 30 of the time of filming, as Sergeant Charles Masterson and Carlyss Peer, age unknown to me, as Sergeant Kate Miskin.  The only one of these actors who was familiar to me, although I didn't recognize him with his magnificent Seventies hairdo and pornstache, was Jeremy Irvine, who starred a decade earlier in Steven Spielberg's best picture Oscar nominated film War Horse, played Pip in the 2012 film version of Great Expectations and had the lead role in Roland Emmerich's controversial gay rights film Stonewall in 2015 (controversial because of its structure as a white male coming of age story). 

Yup it's the Seventies
Jeremy Irvine as Sergeant Masterson
Turns out Bertie Carvel is a Tony Award winner and he recently played ill-fated Banquo in the much praised Coen Brothers' Macbeth film, which I still haven't seen.  I'll have to do so, though, cause he's good as AD!  (And why has this dude never played Mr. Knightley?)

Ray Marsden having popularly played AD for fifteen years in a series which became a staple in both the UK and US, which televised it on the PBS program Mystery (I remember my parents watching it then), Bertie Carvel was facing something of a challenge in playing Dalgliesh.  

For a lot of people Marsden "became" AD, just like actor John Thaw over the same period became Inspector Morse.  However, PD James herself came to feel that Marsden was appropriating her character for himself and I have the impression that she played a role in ditching him in favor of Martin Shaw, who to my mind, anyway, wasn't really suited for the role.  (He's now much better known as Inspector George Gently.)  

I really like Carvel as AD however.  Perhaps he lacks a little of AD's forbiddingness (a quality he shares with his creator), but I am not so sure I really miss it.  Carvel makes a believable perpetually grieving, sensitive poet-policeman and that's what counts most for me.

I have to say though the real surprise for me in this series is "pretty boy" Jeremy Irvine's convincing take on that sleazy and rather thuggish yet undeniably sexy bad boy AD underling, the symbolically named Charles Masterson.  In Masterson James created, arguably, a much more realistic policeman than the idealized AD, one who doesn't put the force in the greatest of lights in many ways, to be sure, yet an interesting character in his own right.  The exchanges between him and AD add piquancy to the film as they do to the novel.  I was always sorry that James replaced him with the pioneering but intensely earnest and sadly dull Kate Miskin.  

Speaking of which, Kate Miskin first pops up in this series in the second installment, The Black Tower.  This is not a book which she actually appears in, but obviously the filmmakers wanted to integrate her into the series in a less haphazard fashion and I think it works quite well.  I haven't viewed the third episode yet, but I preferred Carlyss Peer's Kate Miskin to Penny Downie's bland take back in the '88 version (though that take is closer to the book character).  That Carlyss Peer is a mixed race actress lends an interesting element to the proceedings, though I'm sure if FOX News got hold of this news they would be screaming WOKE!  How dare there be a person of color in a PD James novel!

It is true, I believe, that PD James never evinced any particular interest in racial/ethnic issues in her books, which are very much tales about elite white collar professional white people on the whole.  She has a Jewish police sergeant in Original Sin (which turns out to a plot necessity) and an Indian one in several of her later books (rather liked him), but for the life of me I can't remember any black characters.  Perhaps I'm forgetting someone.  In any event, this element is nicely set up in the first film in the series: Shroud for a Nightingale.

Personally I feel like the novels James published between 1962 and 1977 were her most interesting.  In the Eighties and Nineties her books got longer and longer and longer and longer, as mentioned above, much to the delight of the critics, but they were not, in my view, particularly impressive as mysteries per see, nor, on the whole, do I think they were exceptionally remarkable for their novelistic qualities, as it were, whatever the smitten critics may have wanted us to believe at the time.  I actually think Shroud for a Nightingale probably is her single best detective novel, so I was pleased to see them open with this one.  It's a smart move, because it sets up memorable Sergeant Masterson as a recurring character.

Nurse Dakers (Helen Aluko)

Like so many of James' books, Nightingale is centered on events at an enclosed location: a nursing school in a creepy old Victorian mansion.  James herself for many years was a bureaucrat in the National Health Service and she writes of this setting with impressive authority.  Her first murder is memorably gruesome (a specialty of hers) and the plotting sure and strong, with an excellent twist or two.  Her characterization is good as well, without needing 100,000 extra words to do it.  I think it's one of the great classic detective novels of the second half of the twentieth century.  

On the whole the series version does it credit.  The setting is superbly realized, fidelity to the plot is maintained and the acting, down to the smaller parts, is dead on, as it were.  I was surprised by how convincing all the nursing students were: sexy Nurse Pardoe (Alice Nokes), dutiful Nurse Goodale (Eliot Salt), the faintly creepy Burt twins, Shirley and Maureen (Robin and Alex Kristoffy), pious Nurse Pearce (Beccy Henderson), enigmatic Nurse Fallon (Siobhan Cullen).  

Special kudos go to Helen Aluko, as Nurse Dakers.  Having a black actress in this role again added a lot of interesting dimension from a social history standpoint and Aluko portrayed the distressed young woman compellingly.  She along with another of the nurses actually get character arcs, an impressive achievement given the limited series time (two forty-five minute episodes)!

And their superiors were great too: Fenella Woolgar (very familiar from British television) as nervous Sister Gearing, Amanda Root as man-averse Sister Brumfett (Anne from the '95 Persuasion!) and Natasha Little as attractive and authoritative Matron Mary Taylor.  And let's not forget the token male suspect, an arrogant doctor, Stephen Courtney-Briggs, played by Richard Dillane, about the only person who appeared in this show who is older than I (and not by much).  And, oh yes, kooky kitchen assistant Morag Smith (Lily Newmark), who works here better than in the book, I think.  

AD confronts Nightingale House's Matron and Sister about some poison.

A lot of young, attractive female acting talent in this film, very well cast.  (I believe it also has a woman scriptwriter and director.)  I noticed that many of the actresses, from Amanda Root as intimidating Nurse Brumfett on down to Lily Newmark as lowly, developmentally challenged Morag, actually had to be "deglammed" for their parts.

The fast pace of the film kept things tense and exciting, though there were times I would have liked things to slow down slightly and give the characters some more "special moments," especially during the climactic confrontation between Dalgleish and the murderer.  This is handled somewhat differently from the book, which I get, but in the book it's a very interesting, extended sequence--AD and murderers tend to get pretty philosophical in these scenes--that feels a bit rushed in the film.  Can't believe I am arguing that something by PD James should be longer for once!

I will say that Masteron gets a great scene with a London woman who has information about the case and what he has to do to get it is rather amusing!  Was this is the book, I can't recall.  James, a humorous woman in real life, was not noted for her humor in her novels.

Overall, I believe Dalgleish got off to a superb start with Shroud for a Nightingale.  Does the series hold up through the next two installments?  We shall see!