- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

By P.D. James
Knopf, $22, 208 pages


As one of the reigning queens of mystery fiction, P.D. James is well qualified to characterize a certain era as the “golden age” of murder.

In this fascinating analysis of mysteries and those who created them, she makes the point that while such novels reached their peak of popularity in the era between the two great wars of the early-20th century, and while they dealt with violent death and violent emotion - “They are novels of escape.”

Ms. James notes that in the plots penned by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, readers were required to feel no real pity for the victim, and no empathy for the murderer. “For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor,” she observes succinctly.

Cataloguing the changing style of mystery writing from the mannered English to the hard-boiled American, which made a later appearance, Ms. James emphasizes, “Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality … readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world.”

“Stands the church clock at ten to three? And is there arsenic still for tea?” She is entirely accurate about the escapism of mystery novels, which continue to hold a hammerlock on those who read them almost a century later. There are those who compare reading a good mystery to drinking a dry martini in terms of escapism. She contends that the lasting appeal of mystery writers is how much they leave to the intelligence and imagination of the reader who wants more clues and speculation than blood.

Ms. James recalls how she was born into that kind of world in the England of 1920, “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal and crime an aberration.”

While in such a world, it was assumed that murderers would hang, the author reminds that Agatha Christie, “arch purveyor of cozy reassurance,” was careful not to emphasize this “disagreeable fact.” She also makes the point that orderliness of behavior in the 1920s and ‘30s masked an age of underlying anxiety, with the threat of fascist dictators abroad and social upheaval in an England still bruised by four years of death and brutality in World War I.

The difference between Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler was “vast,” according to Ms. James. In depicting and exploring the huge social upheavals of the 1920s, there were created detectives who were “inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms.”

She notes that Hammett’s Sam Spade, immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in the film “The Maltese Falcon,” had become “the archetypical private eye.” In the case of Chandler, his hero, Philip Marlowe, “accepts that he is earning a precarious and dangerous living in a world which is lawless, tawdry and corrupt.”

A memorable quote is offered from a character in Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” who observes, “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks … . Big money is big power, and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.”

No sharper contrast can be offered to the world of Agatha Christie, where bullet-ridden corpses on the streets of the urban jungle simply don’t exist. Nor do the fast-shooting, sardonic private eyes proliferating across the Atlantic. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie’s best-known detectives, operated in a courteous and decorous era usually set in a “romanticized English village rooted in nostalgia.”

While expressing admiration for Christie, who in many respects remained a mystery woman when it came to her own life, Ms. James dismisses her writing style as “neither original nor elegant, but workmanlike.”

She suggests that because Christie used no psychological subtlety, her characters were drawn broadly and consequently had “a universality which readers worldwide can recognize and feel at home with.”

Christie’s great strength, Ms. James asserts, was that she knew precisely what she could do and did it well, producing for more than 50 years mysteries of “extraordinarily imaginative duplicity.”

Noting that Christie’s clues were “brilliantly designed to confuse,” Ms. James offers a marvelous example of that style, describing how a butler peers closely at a calendar in one book. Christie has thus planted in the mind of her reader, contends Ms James, the suspicion of a critical clue involving dates and times - “But the clue is, in fact, that the butler is shortsighted.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.



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