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Murder Most British

P.D. James strikes again.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By JON L. BREEN
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The Murder Room

by P.D. James

Knopf, 415 pp., $25.95

THE SETTING for "The Murder Room," P.D. James's thirteenth novel about Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh, could hardly be more appropriate: a museum devoted to Great Britain between the world wars. With her unapologetic embrace of hallowed detective-story conventions, James is the strongest contemporary link to that era's traditional British detective fiction.

Now Baroness James of Holland Park, Phyllis Dorothy James was a hospital administrative assistant when her first novel, a country-house whodunit called "Cover Her Face," was published in Britain in 1962. Classical British detective fiction was at a low ebb. A few of the golden-age masters were still in business--Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake--but new talent was sparse, and the ascendant genre for popular fiction was the spy novel. So resistant were publishers to old-fashioned detection that James's first novel would not see publication in America until 1966.

James's detective Dalgliesh is a policeman and a published poet--a throwback to such literate cops as Marsh's Roderick Alleyn and Innes's John Appleby. While his cases hold fast to such classical traditions as fairly given clues and surprising murderers, James was determined to bring more reality to the pattern, emphasizing deeper characterization, recognition of the real cost of murder on the lives of the survivors, and authentic forensic detail. (Her awareness of these matters was facilitated by her administrative jobs in Britain's Home Office between 1968 and her retirement in 1979.)

And what makes James so interesting is that she sees no contradiction in taking serious explorations of character and society, and setting them against delightfully artificial plots, rich in situations like the one that begins the 1967 "Unnatural Causes:" the handless corpse of a mystery writer found floating in a boat off the East Anglian coast, a situation supposedly suggested to the victim for one of his novels. Or the bizarre opening of the 1986 "A Taste for Death:" two bodies, one a derelict and the other a minister of the crown, found bloodily murdered in a London church vestry.

After the first four Dalgliesh cases, James delighted feminists with the introduction of female private eye Cordelia Gray in "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" (1973), with Dalgliesh in a secondary role. Gray is on her own in the theatrical mystery "The Skull Beneath the Skin" (1982), but James doubts in her diary-cum-autobiography "Time to Be in Earnest" (2000) that she will ever return to the character, having lost her to British television, which violated the author's concept of Cordelia by saddling her with an unwed pregnancy. James has confined her subsequent fiction to the Dalgliesh saga with two notable exceptions: her breakout bestseller "Innocent Blood" (1980), an unconventional detective novel about a young woman searching for her birth parents, and the science-fictional "The Children of Men" (1993), depicting a near-future world where the human race has stopped reproducing itself.

James specializes in minutely detailed institutional backgrounds: a psychiatric clinic in "A Mind to Murder" (1967), a training school for nurses in "Shroud for a Nightingale" (1971), a home for the disabled in "The Black Tower" (1975), a forensic science laboratory in "Death of an Expert Witness" (1977), a nuclear power plant in "Devices and Desires" (1989), a centuries-old London publishing house in "Original Sin" (1995), a barristers' chambers in "A Certain Justice" (1997), and a theological college in "Death in Holy Orders" (2001). Usually the institutions are threatened from without or within, and the response of the personnel drives the plot.

Her new novel, "The Murder Room," follows this formula. The room of the title is an exhibition room in the small, family-run Dupayne Museum, which houses items from classic murder cases. For the museum to continue, all three children of the departed founder must sign the new lease. Elder brother Marcus, a recently retired government functionary, and sister Caroline, partner in a posh finishing school, have differing agendas for the museum but want to preserve it. Younger brother Neville, a psychiatrist who scorns dwelling on the past and resents his late father, is just as determined to withhold his signature and force the museum's closure. Thus, he becomes the obvious candidate for murder victim. And when his Jaguar and what may be his charred body are found burnt in the museum's garage, the circumstances echo one of the crimes the Murder Room commemorates. (The reader must ponder whether the charred body found in the car will defy detective-fiction convention by proving actually to be who it is presumed to be.)

With a solution that is satisfying if not dazzling, the latest Dalgliesh novel will not rank with the best--I would especially recommend "Shroud for a Nightingale," "The Black Tower," "Devices and Desires," and "A Certain Justice"--but it's an effective job from a writer who is always worth reading. In common with most current crime novels from major publishers, however, it is longer than it needs to be. In a literary Utopia, every story would occupy its ideal length, but the market piper calls the tune. Beginning with World War II paper shortages and continuing into the 1980s, the standard detective novel ran just under two hundred pages, or about sixty thousand words. With the increasing emphasis on blockbusters in the past couple of decades, mysteries now often run to twice that length.

WHILE SOME WRITERS read as if they have been coerced to add length, the trend came naturally to James. Even her early novels move at a leisurely pace, leaving no city thoroughfare or country lane, no house or room, no character central or peripheral undescribed. In her longer novels, she sticks to the case at hand and rarely resorts to the desperate devices of lesser writers: irrelevant recurring cast members, soap-opera and situation-comedy subplots, undigested research material, characters who constantly recount to each other things the reader already knows. James adds new matter--more description, more atmosphere, more extensive back stories for her people--but runs the risk of overbalancing the plot, bringing the action to a grinding halt and encouraging the impatient reader to skip the narrative and get the story from the dialogue.

Introducing a recent reprint edition of Clyde B. Clason's 1939 novel "Murder Gone Minoan," Tom and Enid Schantz claim that P.D. James "started out writing tightly crafted gems, but all of her books after 'An Unsuitable Job for a Woman' . . . bog down in endless details about the contents of suitcases or in long pieces of melancholy introspection by her leading characters."

This may be too harsh an assessment, but it has an element of truth. In "The Murder Room," couldn't the life history of museum custodian Tallulah Clutton be summarized in a paragraph or two instead of a six-page chapter? Do we require a full chapter on the discovery of a piece of evidence in a charity shop, when a phone call to the police from offstage would have done the job?

A good detective story, even at novel length, is like a short story: a narrative in which all the elements are directed toward an overall effect and not dispersed into tangents. How often are the additional character insights brought about by extensive back stories and interior monologues profound enough to justify bringing plot movement to a halt? One could rightly argue that James is up to more than writing a detective story, that she offers real insights into society and the effect of crime on those involved, as victims, investigators, suspects, or peripheral figures. But recall how much depth of theme, character, and social observation Ross Macdonald was able to insert in his novels while providing a briskly paced story. Additional detail sometimes spells increased depth, but not always.

NONE OF THESE CAVEATS, of course, should deter James's fans from enjoying her work or new readers from discovering it. While the padding and tangents of some contemporary crime writers should be consigned to the wastebasket without looking back, James is too interesting a writer for her extraneous passages to be completely without interest. "The Murder Room" is another successful outing from a master in the genre.

A regular writer on mystery fiction for The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.