My plan to read P.D. James’ last Adam Dalgliesh novel at a leisurely pace failed. Partly it was because of me (I cannot seem to read mysteries in a leisurely fashion) and partly it was because of James. Although I can understand that her methodical, detailed scene setting is not everyone’s cup of literary tea, I find it enormously comforting. The older I get, the more I recognize the pure delight I find in a well-constructed sentence or paragraph.
James did not write page turners. She doesn’t cram her plots with non-stop action. Her prose is complex and she makes you work for everything: an understanding of the mystery, an understanding of her characters. I once compared her, in a review, to Jane Austen, not because they plowed anything like the same territory, but because the way they relentlessly plow the small bit of terrain they stake for themselves feels similar. The little bits of ivory they carve are different bits, but the carving techniques look alike.
There are times when James’ love of detail does seem to get in the way of her unfolding story, or at least provide a puzzling sense of unevenness to the book. In The Private Patient, the 2008 novel that turned out to be her last novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, there’s a scene not far from the end that almost made me laugh because it felt so typically (and endearingly) the kind of scene she loves to write.
Dalgliesh has solved the murder, more or less, but feels unsatisfied with the confessed motive of the killer. In the interest of learning more of the truth, he seeks out information from an elderly solicitor whom he believes can provide him with that information. It turns out that the man can do just that – in fact his part in the underlying reasons behind the whole recent tragedy turn out to be deeper than maybe even Dalgliesh expected – but what’s interesting is the way James goes out of her way to paint a portrait of this admittedly minor character. She’s perhaps twenty-five pages from the end of the novel (and there is a definite sense throughout the book that the 88 year old James knew it was probably her last Dalgliesh novel) and yet she makes the reader linger in the man’s room, giving us revealing glimpses of his character in his possessions, his view from the nursing home window, the dance of his conversation with Dalgliesh (in which he reveals some, but not everything, that Dalgliesh wishes to know).
We don’t need to know all this about the solicitor. We’re never going to see him or his room again. And yet James delights in giving us the details, in creating a portrait of a character who essentially has a walk-on role. One wonders sometimes why she persists in doing this. I think a lot of it seems to be pure pleasure from the creation and exploration of character, but at least some of it can be chalked up to her desire to show that all human beings, not merely the ones in “starring roles,” are important and complex. Indeed, she shows us time and again that for Dalgliesh himself, a dedication to solving murders only makes sense if one believes that all murders are equally shocking because each one robs a unique and equally valuable person of a life. Sometimes one life may look more important or valuable on the surface, but in the end, either all lives are precious or none are. At least that’s what I think AD thinks. (He may be a gentle sort of agnostic, but he’s still the son of a vicar, and it shows through in the fundamentals.)
Contrast her delving into the conversation with the solicitor in his highly detailed lodgings with the three pages or so she devotes in the final chapter to the wedding of our hero, Dalgliesh, to his beloved Emma – Emma whom we still feel like we barely know, Dalgliesh who wore his widower-sorrow deep for book after book. She tells us very little about the ceremony itself, though she chooses a few deft details. She provides our entire glance at the wedding through the perspective of two more minor characters, friends of Emma with whom we’ve spent relatively little time. She gives no lines at all to either Dalgliesh or Emma. The lines she gives to Emma’s friends are partly borrowed from Jane Austen (another wedding with another Emma). We see the bride and groom almost from afar, like we’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Sweetly, I think, our last view of Dalgliesh is when he turns from the altar and holds his hand out to Emma with a smile. It’s a lovely last gesture for her stalwart, reticent detective, leaving the reader with the satisfied realization that the private, emotionally buttoned-up Dalgliesh has finally opened himself back up to life and life. Given that the reader is given precious few insights into Dalgliesh’s emotional life throughout the series (think Darcy or Captain Wentworth) as tiny as the motion is, it feels almost huge for James.
James’ own love of Austen was such that I think the comparison of Dalgliesh to some of Austen’s heroes is appropriate. What’s fascinating, however, is that unlike Austen, who never gave us much insight into her heroes’ inner lives because her books are primarily about heroines, James does. But almost all of it comes through watching Dalgliesh at work. We know him as a professional, as a detective mostly (and a poet secondarily) and the ground she plows with such precision and detail is the world in which Dalgliesh works. If we know anything about how AD feels about life, death, love, marriage, loneliness, death, or the human condition, we know it from the way he conducts investigations, treats suspects, looks at the body of a victim, asks questions, and treats colleagues. It hardly ever comes through what he says directly, though sometimes, especially in the later books, we’re privileged to be given some of his thoughts.
In the end, I think James fought hard against turning Dalgliesh into any sort of typical “hero,” romantic or otherwise, which may not have endeared her to a wider readership (not that she needed one!) but I think ultimately kept the books more interesting. This may be why she resisted giving much detail to the romance she finally let him be involved in for the last few books, though one gets the sense that she was too fond of him as a character to let him stay the reticent and lonely widower of the early books. She resists letting him fall for Kate, the woman he works so closely with for years, though she finally let us see in this last book what a deep place he will always hold in Kate’s heart – and vice versa. Yes, AD writes poetry, and he occasionally has to do heroic type things like rescue people from dangerous situations, but really he’s a very ordinary man, albeit a highly intelligent one, who is doing the best he can at a job he loves but sometimes finds difficult and painful. Does that make him a hero? Maybe, in a very real and human sense. All I know is that, despite sometimes feeling like I never got to know him as well as I kept hoping I would, I’m going to miss him.