“Playful Ghoulishness of a Crime Queen: The Short Fiction of P.D. James” (by R.T. Raichev)

R.T. Raichev is a lifelong fan of English crime fiction, even writing his university dissertation on the subject. His own fiction, which includes nine books in a classical whodunit series starring crime writer Antonia Darcy and her husband Major Payne, has received wide critical praise and comparisons to Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, and P.D. James. R.T. (Raicho) grew up in Bulgaria but has lived in London since 1989. He debuts in EQMM in our current issue (February 2016) and we have another of his stories coming up. Readers also won’t want to miss the latest Darcy/Payne novel, The Killing of Olga Klimt.—Janet Hutchings
R. T. Raichev; photo courtesy of the author

R. T. Raichev; photo courtesy of the author

The journalist Barbara C. Sealcock from the Chicago Tribune tells a story about interviewing P.D. James back in March 1985. As the two women were leaving James’s Boston apartment after tea, the famous author paused in the vestibule at a large black carved chest, lifted the lid and peered in. “This,” she said, “is where the bodies would be found.” Sealcock describes the moment as “pure Hitchcockian.”

I quote this mildly amusing anecdote because it suggests a kind of ghoulish playfulness on the part of Baroness James, of the kind not often found in her novels. Indeed British journalist Polly Toynbee has described James’s oeuvre as “sombre and scientific.” James—who died in November 2014—wrote twenty distinguished novels, an account of a Victorian real-life murder case, a play, a memoir, and an incisive analysis of the detective story. She has earned special praise for her psychological acuity, for transcending the limitations of the pure detective puzzle and moving into the realm of the novel proper, for being a serious writer worthy of a Booker nomination. She has been hailed as the mistress of the moral conundrum. But James also wrote a dozen short stories, all of which demonstrate a “lighter” side—a delight in experimentation, grotesquery and a mischievous penchant for bamboozling as well as shocking the reader.

I personally prefer James lite to the novels, most of which tend to be too “baroque” for my taste. The short stories James wrote between 1967 and 2006 manage to be at once sparklingly clever and darkly entertaining while the prose is what aficionados and cognoscenti have come to expect from her novels: extremely sophisticated, evocative, and inventive. I can’t resist giving an example of the latter. This is how a seemingly nondescript woman manages to startle the narrator of A Very Desirable Residence: “She gave me a swift elliptical glance . . . as astonishing as turning over an amateurish Victorian oil and discovering a Corot.”

What follows is an annotated list with my own very personal ratings of all of James’s 11 available short stories. There is a twelfth, “The Death of Memories,” published in something called The Red Book, which I haven’t been able to track down.

“Moment of Power” 1968, in EQMM

James’s first published short story, six years after her debut novel Cover Her Face. It won the 1st prize of the CWA contest sponsored by EQMM. An elderly man, “seedy . . . with his air of spurious gentility . . . neither a pilgrim nor a penitent”, revisits the place of a terrible event “under some compulsion he hadn’t even bothered to analyse.” If this description brings to mind Graham Greene—a writer whom James greatly admired—what follows is pure Hitchcock. (Think Rear Window crossed with Norman Bates watching Janet Leigh through a hole in the wall in Psycho.) The event in question is a murder that took place 16 years earlier. The elderly man is called Ernest Gabriel (“an odd name, half common, half fancy”) and it turns out he had been playing Peeping Tom, spying from his window on a couple in the building opposite. James offers a fascinating exploration of the murkier and more chilling instincts of the human mind. 5/5

“The Victim” 1973, in Winter’s Crime 5, London, Macmillan (first U.S. publication EQMM, 1984)

An “inverted” detective tale, as pioneered by Francis Iles, and the first of two stories of obsession and revenge. (“I couldn’t go on living in a world where he breathed the same air. My mind fed voraciously on the thought of his death, savoured it, began systematically and with dreadful pleasure to plan it . . . . Once a week as a special treat I would sharpen the knife to an even keener edge.”) The killer, a librarian by profession, is a strange and disturbing blend of the banal and the outlandish. In loving detail he informs the reader exactly how he set about killing the man who stole his bewitchingly beautiful wife from him. (Born a mere Elsie Bowman she later becomes Princess Ilsa Mancelli.) After the murder the wronged husband feels “drained of thought and energy . . . as if I had just made love.” One can’t help remembering Hitchcock’s words, “I shoot murder scenes as if they are love scenes and love scenes as if they are murder scenes.” The Victim would have made a good Hitchcock film. 4/5

“Murder 1986” 1975, in Ellery Queen’s Masters of Mystery, New York, Davis

A standalone and something of a curiosity as it is set in the bleakest of futures. It bears a number of similarities to James’s 1992 dystopian novel The Children of Men. (Both story and novel end with a tense confrontation between two men each pointing a gun at the other. This predates Tarantino.) The story was clearly inspired by Orwell (a Big-Brother-like “Leader” has a regular slot on TV) and Huxley (an embittered character spits out the words “brave new world”). In James’s 1986, society is divided into two groups: the superior Normals and Ipdics, carriers of the deadly “Disease,” which has destroyed most of the world’s population. The Ipdics are “inferior, unorganised, easily cowed.” When it comes to the murder of the title, its unravelling is pleasingly old-fashioned, made possible by Sergeant Dolby’s acute observational skills and the power of his grey cells. And there is a final devastating revelation in the very last paragraph of the story. NB Practically all the other of James’s short stories are about murder in the past. 4/5

“A Very Desirable Residence” 1977, Winter’s Crimes 8, Macmillan, London (first U.S. publication EQMM, 1991)

Murder of a schoolmaster—‘a middle-aged, disagreeable and not very happy pedant”—or what amounts to murder—to disclose more would be to spoil the surprise of the rather Machiavellian murder scheme. Shades of Roger Ackroyd—and another darkly ironic ending, in some ways similar to the one of The Victim, reinforcing the idea of the female of the species being deadlier than the male. The motive for the crime is in the title and it is not so dissimilar to the killer’s motive in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral. NB While admiring Christie’s “conjuror’s art” James was far from enthusiastic about her writing skills. 4/5

“Great Aunt Allie’s Fly-Papers” 1979, in Verdict of 13, A Detection Club Anthology, London, Collins (first U.S. publication EQMM, 1991, retitled “The Boxdale Inheritance”)

A historical whodunit, the only short story to feature James’s regular detective Commander Adam Dalgliesh, my own favourite and one of the very best. Dalgliesh, like Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant, investigates a murder in the distant past (pre-1914). The murder method is arsenic from fly papers soaked and used as beauty treatment (possibly inspired by the Madeleine Smith case). The interaction between the characters and the intricate plot show James at her most masterly and adroit. Dalgliesh manages to formulate a theory as to what happened at that fatal Edwardian Christmas party—but then he discovers there is a survivor—one of the participants is still alive, albeit very, very old, very ill, and in hospital. (“Here in the silence of the aseptic corridor Dalgliesh could smell death.”) The actual solution is completely unexpected as the killer turns out to be “the one person nobody considered.” And there is a last rather wonderful twist when a linen handkerchief is produced, “still stiff and stained with brown”, and placed in the Commander’s hand. 5/5

“The Murder of Santa Claus” 1983, in Great Detectives, New York, Pantheon Books

The first of two stylish takes on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. A house-party murder that takes place in 1939, in the first months of the phony war. A villainous host (a bully, a cad, and a blackmailer) is stabbed on Christmas Eve while wearing a Father Christmas costume after receiving a threatening rhyme in a Christmas cracker. It is tempting to mention that 1939 was the year Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published. James’s story also brings to mind not only Ngaio Marsh’s 1961 Tied Up in Tinsel, in which the murder victim (a Colonel’s valet) was also dressed up as Santa Claus, but several other Marsh novels, in which a series of malicious pranks are a prelude to murder. The narrator is a crime writer remembering the time he had witnessed a real-life killing. Atmospheric and scrupulously clued, the story could easily have been expanded into a full-length novel, had Baroness James put her mind to it. Contains several post-modern and slightly parodic self-references—at one point the narrator says, “I was not an H.R.F.Keating nor a Dick Francis, not even a P.D.James . . .” NB By setting five of her stories when capital punishment was still practiced in Britain, James manages to ratchet up extra suspense and tension. 5/5

“The Girl Who Loved Graveyards” 1983, Winter’s Crimes 15, London, Macmillan (first U.S. publication EQMM, 1991)

As creepily Gothic as the necrophiliac title suggests, though there is an extremely interesting and entirely plausible reason for the main character’s obsession with graveyards. (“She made the cemetery her own . . . it was to remain a place of delight and mystery, her habitation and her solace.”) A disturbing event back in 1956 has caused “the girl” (we never learn her name) to suffer loss of memory and develop a morbid taste for “the earthy tang . . . as if the dead were breathing the flower-scented air and exuding their own mysterious miasma.” In later life she goes on a quest to find out what exactly happened. Did her father and “toad-like” grandmother really die of flu? The story has some affinity with Hitchcock’s Spellbound in which an amnesiac adult also seeks obsessively for what lies behind his fear of sharp objects. But the ending of James’s story is infinitely more shocking than that of Hitchcock’s film! Watch out for the cat Sambo and its role in the gruesome event. 5/5

“The Mistletoe Murder” 1991, in The Spectator magazine, London

Another whodunit set at Christmas and the narrator is again a crime writer—a female one this time, a young widow who, one suspects, has something of P.D. James about her. The year this time is 1940 and the War is very much on. (Blackout window curtains are important to the plot.) A small house party at Turville Manor in Hampshire ends in murder. The victim is again—in the best Golden Age tradition—highly unsympathetic, a greedy and ruthless blackmailer. The snowbound country estate, a uniformed cousin and references to battles raging off stage bring to mind Ngaio Marsh’s 1942 Death and the Dancing Footman. The solution is contained in the very last sentence. (Shades of Christianna Brand.) NB It is interesting that four of James’s murders take place during the season of cheer and goodwill. Perhaps Poirot is right when he says in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, that it is a time when “. . . there will occur a great deal of strain . . . great pressure . . . to appear amiable . . . under these conditions it is highly probable that dislikes and disagreements that were trivial suddenly assume a more serious character . . .” 5/5

“The Man Who Was Eighty” 1992, The Man Who . . . , London, Macmillan (first U.S. publication EQMM, 1993)

The story was written for a celebratory collection on the occasion of Julian Symons’s 80th birthday. (Symons, at the time the doyen critic-cum-commentator of English detective fiction, had written several novels with The Man Who . . . in the title.) Here we see James at her most surprisingly skittish. The title of another Symons novel The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple could easily be given to this James story—though here the contented couple are not a husband and wife but a prosperous brother and sister who enjoy a Daimler-and-Poulilly-Fusse lifestyle. During a visit to their father at his luxurious nursing home, the impossible old man—who had driven away ‘a succession of housekeepers, except those who had been alcoholic, mad or kleptomaniac’—now confesses to murder. His name is Augustus Maybrick and he claims to have used arsenic to poison his brother—which suggests another post-modern joke. (Mrs. Maybrick was the notorious Victorian poisoner.) In Bloody Murder, his history of the detective genre, Symons says of James, “She would have been a distinguished representative of the Golden Age, to set beside Marsh and Allingham. It is the pressures of the times that has made her a modern.” 3/5

“Hearing Ghote” 2005, in The Verdict of Us All, London, A&B

James wrote this story for another tribute collection, commemorating fellow crime writer and critic H.R.F. Keating’s 80th birthday this time. It is Christmastime and an unpopular prep school master (a Mr. Michaelmas) is pushed off a cliff. The murder is witnessed by the pupil whom the master was accompanying on his journey to the manor belonging to the boy’s grandmother. The boy is the narrator and he is reading an Inspector Ghote mystery—one of H.R.F. Keating’s offerings—and decides not to give away the killer—whose action seems justified. Does Ghote stand for making controversial moral choices and erring on the side of kindness? For those unfamiliar with the Indian detective, that seems to be the implication. I personally thought Ghote’s formative influence on the boy—who grows up to be not only a detective story writer but a man of compassion as well—somewhat forced. Surely the story would have had a broader appeal without the boy “hearing Ghote”? NB This is the third James story in which a crime writer tells the reader of journalists asking him whether he has ever witnessed a murder at first hand. 3/5 (3 Minus)

“The Part-time Job” 2006, in The Detection Collection, London, Orion

One must mention the remarkable fact that what is surely James’s short story masterpiece was written when she was in her 85th year. (Compare to Christie’s sadly muddled last short story “The Harlequin Tea-set” written when Dame Agatha was 80.) “The Part-time Job” starts with the tantalising line, “By the time you read this I shall be dead.” What follows is an unsettling account of obsession and long-drawn-out revenge (a favourite theme with James, it would seem) told once more in the first person, by the killer. The narrator makes up his mind to commit this particular murder when he is 12 and he never changes his decision over the next 25 years. (This one puts you in mind of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”) It is the 1950s and the victim is the man who bullied the narrator at school, though the actual lethal revenge is not quite what you might think. Even when we believe we know what is going to happen, even after we have seen it happen, James delivers a staggering coup. The clue is in the title. The nature of the part-time job is revealed in the final paragraph. (So simple, so subtle, so chilling.) Baroness James’s last story, like her first, was deservedly awarded the CWA’s first prize—one can imagine James approving of the full circle, of the symmetry, of the neatness of the pattern. NB Given that she was a devout Anglican, a Conservative peer, and for a time a Magistrate in Middlesex and London, it is curious that ten out of her eleven murderers are, for various reasons, allowed to remain unpunished by the Law. 5/5 (Alpha Plus)

It seems incredible that her short stories haven’t been yet collected and published in one volume.

Actually, Baroness James did have a dead body discovered in a freezer—which comes very close to a chest—in her 2008 novel The Private Patient.

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4 Responses to “Playful Ghoulishness of a Crime Queen: The Short Fiction of P.D. James” (by R.T. Raichev)

  1. Diony Augustine, Oxford, England says:

    An excellent piece: erudite, witty & informative! I love PDJ but wasn’t aware of the short stories! Raichev’so short story is a delight — NOT many modern crime authors take trouble over plotting — but he does! (EQMM available for downloading on Kindle.) Clever writing — and the twist at the end was SO ingenious! I am a great fan of Raichev’s novels (I have read 4 so far). Look forward to more of his short fiction in EQMM!

  2. Pingback: “1962: The Savoy Party Photo” (by R.T.Raichev) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

  3. M. Glazebrook says:

    Hi – what a great article! You mention a missing short story called “The Death of Memories”. I think you may be referring to “Memories Don’t Die”, a story published in The Red Book, a New York magazine, in July 1984. I managed to track down a copy, only to find that the story was “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards” under a different title. I wish publishers wouldn’t do this but they do! Hope this helps?

  4. Carl Christenson says:

    Thank you M. Glazebook! I was getting ready to search for it,. And thank you R.T.

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