P D James has just celebrated her 90th birthday and, as she is one of my favourite mystery writers, I thought I should celebrate too. I’ve reread Death of an Expert Witness and, as it’s been many years since I read it, it was just like reading a new book as I’d forgotten all the details. Death of an Expert Witness was published in 1977. P D James was a well-established writer by this time. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 & her latest novel, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. I hope it won’t be the last, although there was certainly an elegiac feel about it. Lots of loose ends in the personal & professional life of her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, were tied up & it was a fitting end to the series if it is the end.
Adam Dalgliesh is one of the most enigmatic detectives in crime fiction. Like all the best detectives – Wexford, Poirot, Jane Marple – he arrived on the scene fully formed & has aged so slowly that he seems scarcely older in the latest book than he did in Death of an Expert Witness, published over 30 years before. Dalgliesh grew up in a Norfolk rectory; lost his wife & only child in childbirth just before the first book was written; has had several unsatisfactory relationships since but has only recently met the right woman, Emma Lavenham, proposed to her & been accepted. He is also a poet & this only adds to his air of mystery & detachment.
P D James is the heir of the great Golden Age writers, especially Dorothy L Sayers, who she greatly admires. I have a BBC audio production of Gaudy Night & at the end of the story, there’s an interview with P D James & Jill Paton Walsh, a novelist who has written continuations of some of the Wimsey novels. She has a new book coming out very soon, The Attenbury Emeralds, that I’m looking forward to reading. The interviewer was quite out of her depth, obviously knew very little about Sayers, but James & Paton Walsh were marvellous in their depth of knowledge & their enthusiasm for Sayers as a woman & for her work. That knowledge & enthusiasm for the Golden Age conventions of mystery fiction is obvious in her work.
P D James works within the conventions of the traditional murder mystery. Her books often have a closed circle of suspects like the stately home mysteries of the 30s. The locations are closed communities such as religious institutions, schools, hospitals, legal chambers or a publishing house. In Death of an Expert Witness, it’s a forensic laboratory in the fens of Norfolk. Place is very important to James. She has said that her books often begin with a place, a landscape. She builds up a picture of a group of people. Murder shockingly intrudes on the lives of the characters & Dalgliesh & his team must bring order out of chaos. In Death of an Expert Witness the first 50pp introduce the reader to the scientists, pathologists, police officers & clerical staff of the Hoggatt’s Forensic Science lab. Edwin Lorrimer, the Senior Biologist, is a stern, secretive man. He was overlooked for the post of Director of the lab, he’s tormented by the end of a love affair & he is unforgiving in his treatment of any of his staff who can’t meet his high professional standards. When he is murdered in his laboratory there are many suspects & Dalgliesh needs all his skill to discover which of these people was driven to murder.
Much as I enjoy a good murder, I think my favourite book by P D James isn’t a murder mystery at all. In 1999, she published Time to be in Earnest, a diary of her 77th year. I found this book fascinating. I love diaries & letters but this was more than just a diary. It’s the closest thing to a memoir or autobiography we’re likely to get from P D James. She knew she was writing for publication & so she uses the diary to look back over her life. She talks about her childhood, her marriage, her work in various government jobs, all of which gave her valuable material for her books & her thoughts about life in Britain in the 1990s. She talks about her favourite writers, how & why she writes, her long relationship with her publishers & agents, all the minutiae of a writer’s life. She is also an incredibly busy woman, attending meetings & events connected with her work for the Society of Authors, the BBC, House of Lords & the Church of England.
I love reading about detective fiction as much as I enjoy reading the novels themselves. P D James wrote a wonderful book last year called Talking About Detective Fiction. It was written to raise funds for Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This little book, only 150pp, is a history of the detective novel with special emphasis on the writers James most admires. The core of the book for me was her discussion of the four great women writers of the Golden Age – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham & Ngaio Marsh. She feels an obvious affinity with these writers & has an appreciation of their strengths & the appeal they had in their own time & analyses the influence they’ve had on the writers who came after them. If you want a concise history of the best detective fiction of the last century, there could be no better guide than P D James.