The Magazine

Murder Most British

P.D. James strikes again.

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