Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

In praise of the gentler end of detective fiction

The Adam Dalgliesh novels of P D James.

coverA Guest Review by Kirsty Doole.

I have long been a fan of crime fiction. It is my go-to genre when I need something that’s interesting to read but won’t hurt my brain too much. I have fairly catholic tastes: hard-boiled American cops? Yes. Gory thrillers? Yep (although maybe not too late at night). The inner workings of the criminally insane? Oh yeah, bring it on. But, until recently, I hadn’t really gone in for the gentler end of the detective market. I’ve still, to my shame, never read anything by Agatha Christie. Yes, I know, I’ll get on it. I have, though, become a convert to the work of one of Britain’s best-loved crime writers: P. D. James.

It was just after the birth of my daughter, last year. In those glassy-eyed, sleep-deprived days when she was finally asleep, and I finally got a little while to read (at last), but I couldn’t face anything even remotely taxing, I knew it would be crime I would be turning to. However, I just couldn’t stomach anything too horrific or bloodthirsty. I needed something that wouldn’t addle my hormonal, emotional, new mum sensibilities but would still satisfy my procedural craving. Something a bit… Morsey. But I’d been minddown that route before, and hadn’t enjoyed the novels as much as the TV versions, so where next? I know! Adam Dalgliesh! And here is the joy of e-reading: I could instantly download Cover Her Face, the first novel in the sequence.

Cover Her Face is about the murder of Sally Jupp, a servant at the Maxie family’s manor house in the fictional English village of Chadfleet. She is found strangled in her bed, behind a door locked from the inside, the morning after a fete at which she had announced she would marry the son of the family, Dr Stephen Maxie. Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is called in from Scotland Yard, and the investigations begin in earnest.

In the best traditions of detective fiction, it transpires that Sally has annoyed basically everyone within or connected to the Maxie family, and it’s easier to name the characters who don’t have a motive to off her than those who do. The novel then follows Dalgliesh’s systematic investigations, gradually working out who was where when, before a classic mystery denouement: he gathers all the suspects into one room and explains how and why various people blackcan’t have been the culprit before the real murderer finally confesses their guilt.

I always think the real test of a mystery novel is whether, after the solution is revealed, the reader’s immediate reaction is a relieved, satisfied, “OF COURSE!”. I don’t want to have already guessed, but I want it to immediately make complete sense. I don’t want to be sitting there, having invested precious reading time (reading time made all the more precious when you have a small child) only to then be all like “EH?”. No “eh” here. Only “of course”. And therefore P. D. James immediately became one of “my” crime writers. Next novel in the series? A Mind to Murder. Immediate download, thank you very much.

At the time of writing, I am reading the fifth Dalgliesh novel, The Black Tower. Dalgliesh has developed as a character, and the quality of the novels has stayed high. In fact, as good as it was, Cover Her Face is possibly my least favourite of the novels I’ve read so far. My favourite of the four I’ve completed is most certainly Shroshroudud for a Nightingale, Dalgliesh number four. Again, we have numerous suspects for the murders of two student nurses, but the tone of the novel is darker, and, frankly, more sinister, than the earliest book.

Is this darkening tone going to continue as the series progresses? I don’t know yet, and please no one tell me. The first rule of detective fiction club is don’t talk about what happens. The enjoyment, I think, is almost entirely based in not knowing what’s going to happen, and if I knew what was coming, I doubt I’d bother reading them.

The gentler side of detective fiction is something I will continue to investigate. I haven’t given up my gory thrillers, and now that I’m less hormonally delicate, I am finding myself returning to them. But now that I’ve learned to appreciate the more traditional side of the mystery world, I’m also on the look out for recommendations from that world. Don’t worry, Agatha. I’m coming.

(The covers shown are all from the current Faber and Faber editions of the Dalgliesh novels.)

4 comments on “In praise of the gentler end of detective fiction

  1. rosyb
    April 26, 2013

    Crime isn’t really my thing, but I’ve been getting a bit nostalgia for more old-fashioned crime genre where the characters may even have a bit of humour and it’s not really full of close up gore – as I’m rather squeamish. I enjoyed this review and maybe a bit of cheery crime (uh umm) is what I am after. 🙂

  2. Jackie
    April 26, 2013

    Highly entertaining review of a series I like a lot. There’s a lot of depth & details in James’s books and well developed characters. I can’t handle any kind of gory stuff and prefer cozy mysteries(as Head Fox Leena once told me they are called).
    For Agatha Christie, may I suggest “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”? That’s the one I think is the best, but all of them are quite good & there is humor woven through them too.

  3. Hilary
    April 28, 2013

    Thank you for reminding me how good the earlier AD novels are – I must go back and reread them. It may even be long enough since I did so for me to have forgotten whodunit, too – and it will be an interesting test of whether crime novels really are for one shot only, or reveal new pleasures a second time around.

    My recommendation of classy crime at the gentler end is Donna Leon’s Brunetti sequence. I think number one was Death at La Fenice, followed by Aqua Alta. As with any long running series they are a bit variable, but every time I think ‘that’s it – she’s run out of steam’ she follows it up with a stonking return to form. And for vintage and mildly hilarious, Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels can’t be beaten – some have an Oxford setting, without leaving to those of us who love that city shaking our heads at the impression left by Morse that the odds on survival on its mean streets are not long.

  4. Kirsty D
    April 29, 2013

    Thanks all!

    Jackie – thanks for the recommendation. I think part of the problem with approaching an author as famous and prolific is simply not knowing where to start. Do I go back to her first novel and work chronologically? Do Poirot then Miss Marple then… everything else? Do I start with the one with the nicest cover?

    Hilary – I’ve heard good things about Donna Leon. And you make a good point about Morse. In the wake of the books and the TV, one would be forgiven for thinking that Oxford ranked second only to Midsomer as the murder capital of Britain.

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