THE MURDER ROOM
by P.D. James
Faber and Faber, Rec. price: $29.95
Don’t read P.D. James if you relish detailed post-mortems of mutilated corpses. Don’t read her for lip-smacking depictions of sex and violence. And try a Mills and Boon instead if you are after romance; the love affair of her detective, Adam Dalgleish, is passionless, unconvincing and tacked on.
If, on the other hand, you are after an engrossing yarn written with enormous skill by an elderly lady who is in tune with what some call natural law, and others God’s common grace, then James is your woman.
The conventions of a murder mystery demand that the killing occurs in circumstances which deliver a limited circle of suspects.
In The Murder Room, the deaths take place in a small, private London museum, with its owners and employees as the most likely guilty parties. The museum is dedicated to the history of the inter-war period, and one of its rooms displays some of the more sensational crimes of that era.
Although it involves lapsing into what C. S. Lewis called the Personal Heresy, it is difficult to read P.D. James without seeing her own life reflected in the protagonists of her stories. Her husband, a doctor, suffered from mental illness after his return from WWII, and later died. James was forced to work to support her children, and reached high office in the medical and (later) justice departments of the civil service.
The central characters in The Murder Room and her other books have usually exercised determination, discipline, diligence and frugality to carve out successful careers for themselves, their success being symbolised by the acquisition of a private and personalised retreat. Hence James’s mania for furnishings. She is not a particularly descriptive writer; the particulars of faces, physiques, clothes, vehicles, and food, for example, are touched on sparingly.
The detailed location and interior decoration of her characters’ apartments, however, give her writing the faint undertones of a real estate agent’s catalogue.
Notice the word apartment. Rarely in James, and certainly not in this book, does the reader encounter the untidy and chaotic life of a “normal” nuclear family in a “normal” family house with a dog and a garden and clothes dropped on the floor and the kitchen table covered in newspapers and the kids’ friends coming and going.
In fact, she seems confident only in dealing with career-minded individuals who have struggled to succeed, and who live by themselves or with a partner. She portrays not just nuclear families, but also young people, poor people, uneducated people, tasteless people and very rich people in the manner of a tourist encountering exotic natives.
The preceding paragraph might give the impression that James is an avant garde intellectual with a contemptuous disregard for the common people and traditional standards. Nothing could be further from the truth. James was born in 1920, but has described her childhood as “Victorian”. She was forced to go out to work at sixteen, and did not enjoy a university education.
While she is by no means theologically orthodox in all respects, the values of her books reflect a solid Christian common sense. Human beings can act with abominable cruelty, but she always holds them responsible for their actions. James does not lack compassion, but there is no hint in her work of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. No one is permitted to find refuge in an amoral psychological, sociological or economic determinism.
Even more unthinkable in James’s universe is an intellectually suicidal post-modernism which finds concepts such as crime and justice meaningless, or reduces them to an arbitrarily contrived game.
In James’s world, human beings are fallen and fallible, good and evil are real, and the mills of God do ultimately grind very small indeed.
One of the characters in The Murder Room is pursuing the thesis that the circumstances of notable crimes are unique to the eras in which they were committed.
Something similar might be theorised about crime writing. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes’s triumphant intellect reflects the confidence of the Victorian Age, and Agatha Christie’s unselfconscious bourgeois mentality reflects the assumptions of pre-war Britain. James’s book could be seen as a resolute (though entertaining and non-didactic) defiance of the nihilism and barbarism into which early twenty-first century society is sliding.