P.D. James: Master of the Modern Detective Novel

P.D. James, the master of detective fiction, died recently, leaving in her wake pyrotechnic displays of masterful writing. In memory of this great technician, I've been reading one of her novels--Devices and Desires--which features her accomplished detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.

James wanted to be a writer from a young age, but war, marriage, children, tragedy--all the bits of messiness that is life--got in the way. Her ambition was thwarted until her early forties when she was able to cash in the few hours she stole from the grind of her duties each day before work and leverage it into a real publication.

P.D. James got her start in mystery writing because she thought it would be a stepping stone: a popular form in which it would be easier to publish--then publish better, publish further. She thought she could move on to more serious work (serious in her eyes) and you can see how this orientation meant that she valued careful, crafted language in her writing.

Her most memorable creation, the Commander Adam Dalgliesh, represents a marriage of her thwarted ambition to the empyrean heights of high brow literary writing, and her realization of this important fact that every great mystery writer must come to terms with: that the vehicle that moves any detective fiction is the detective.

Dalgliesh is not only a Commander in Scotland Yard, but also an acclaimed poet. And so his ability to see the world is suffused with beautiful descriptions. Clouds aren't just clouds--they are something else. And a landscape is always beautifully, precisely described--with a wistful touch.

Dalgliesh also has the poet's eye for detail--the ability to make much about somebody's chin, face, nose. A living room--whether stodgy or common--has that richness of detail that makes for a good read. And it is in the rich descriptions, quite often descriptions of the ordinary, that the Commander is able to see, and help us see, with penetration.

If detective fiction is, at its base--a realistic form--its readers require realism for maximal enjoyment. P.D. James delivers. And there are few detective writers who achieve this level of description without becoming tedious. P.D. James's realism is thick, filled with the kinds of meaningful details that are the delight of this form.

Beyond these facts of character, there are facts of class that make P.D. James's greatest creation an excellent instrument of detection: Dalgliesh is well-to-do, extremely educated. And this allows him to see the world with a scope and breadth, wisdom and farsightedness that ordinary mortals just do not have at their disposal. He is not some beat detective with a baton. He drives a jaguar and takes an interest in all sorts of arcane subject matter--maters like ornithology. He is independently wealthy but is driven by the very British passion to do things properly.

I think this is the stroke of genius on P.D. James's part: creating a character from this cloth. Dalgliesh is the dream child of the frustrated novelist, for he can make striking observations and connections that a more down-to-earth gumshoe simply cannot make. And so he is an ideal instrument for a writer who strives towards maximal effects. After all, every word Dalgliesh utters is also a word uttered by P.D. James, and every word is a missile sent roaring into the sky, exploding into a million sparks that illuminate the darkness that bounds us, that exists all around us.