“Six Murderous Tales” from the incomparable P.D. James.
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales
By P.D. James
(Knopf, 194 pages, $21)
It’s a challenge to write engaging mystery or detective short-stories. Some of the finest crime novelists have tried it with less than gratifying results. The difficulty is easy to spot. It’s devilish hard in the limited confines of the short-story to include a crime and a resolution to the crime and have room left over for the other elements that make for good fiction. The usual result is little more than a puzzle in which the reader’s only reward is to find out at the end whodunit. That’s not nearly enough, even for the small investment of time the short-story requires. And I certainly wouldn’t read a novel if all I know after 300 pages and several hours is who killed Roger Ackroyd.
Fans of the late British writer P.D. James (aka Baroness James of Holland Park, aka the Queen of Crime) will not be surprised to learn that she’s one who had the skill to pull off this difficult feat. She does it again in the six previously uncollected stories in Sleep No More. The stories obviously don’t have the sweep of her long, cerebral, and emotionally subtle novels. But they contain many of the things that set Phyllis Dorothy James apart from the genre writers that populate the large mystery sections of our local bookstores: ingenious plotting, the apt turn of phrase, sharp human insights, subtle humor, the well-drawn setting that is almost a character in the story, surprising twists that upset the reader’s expectations, and, always, the emotional parsing of the characters. With a James novel or story it’s always the characters that matter, not the crime itself. Her novels are whydunits even more than whodunits. All these qualities make her work mainstream fiction rather than simply genre fare.
James spoke of her choice to write detective fiction rather than literary fiction with the Paris Review in 1995. She admitted that early on she thought she would write a detective novel as a kind of apprenticeship before moving on to “serious” novels. But, she said, “I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.” James did exactly this in her half-century of detective novels and stories.
In Sleep No More we have stories in which we wonder whodunit to the end, others in which we know all along but get to explore the effects of guilty knowledge on the conscience. There are surprising revelations and emotional suspense as readers sort the manipulators from the manipulated. There’s even some humor in a well-run scam or two. I’ll skip any plot details in deference to those who choose to read the stories.
Knopf released these stories in time for Christmas, as it did last year with The Mistletoe Murder collection. A couple of the stories take place at Christmas, but they’re hardly “Christmas stories.” There’s not a “God Bless us everyone” moment in any of them. But, not to worry, James was not a bah-humbug, post-everything nihilist (you get some of these among contemporary crime writers). She was a traditionalist born in Oxford in 1920, closer to Victorian England than to Cool Britannia. She was a practicing Anglican her entire life who took great comfort and meaning from The Book of Common Prayer (with a distinct preference for the pre-Cool Britannia editions — she once said that when “Let not your heart be troubled” morphed into “try not to fret and worry,” a great deal was lost). She was socially and politically conservative.
The Christmas hook is more a marketing device by Knopf, and I forgive them for it. I appreciate the fact they’ve been able to find these previously uncollected stories, which are worth reading at any time of the year. With any luck they’ll find some more for Christmas 2018. I hope those who try these stories but haven’t had the pleasure will therefore be led to James’ 18 elegant crime novels (yes, James proved that crime novels can be elegant), all of which are still available. Her career as a novelist stretched from 1962’s Cover Her Face to Death Comes to Pemberley, published in 2011 when James was 91. (She died on Thanksgiving Day, 2014 at 94.) I lift these up to TAS readers, including my favorites, Original Sin, Death of an Expert Witness, and Death in Holy Orders.
I can find only one wee fault with Sleep No More, that is at 194 smallish pages it comes to an end way to soon. Because of the quality of the work, the book certainly earns its way into Santa’s book bag, but perhaps because of its size it belongs in the stocking-stuffer section.
P.D. James in 2010 (YouTube screenshot)