Monday, December 21, 2009

P. D. James

In The Murder Room P.D. James begins with well over 100 pages of introduction, including character sketches of every major and some minor players in the up-coming murders. The first two murders and their investigation by detective Adam Dalgliesh are also presented in a leisurely and very detailed way.

One character, Tally, is especially carefully depicted, including her life story, her work as a housekeeper in a museum (the location at the center of the plot), her reaction to discovering the first victim, her relationship with her daughter, and her thoughts on the murders. She's a generous woman, and tries to help a young handyman, Ryan, about whom we also learn so much I find it overdone. For example, she invites him to eat his lunch at her cottage, though she really doesn't welcome his company or like his presence. Food becomes an emblem of this.
Today he had brought half a small loaf of sliced brown bread and a tin of sardines. The key of the tin snapped when he tried to unfurl the lid and he had to fetch a can opener from the kitchen. It proved too much for the tin and, uncharacteristically, he bungled the task, spurting oil onto the table-cloth. The smell of fish rose strongly filling the cottage. Tally moved to open the door and a window, but the wind was rising now.... Returning to the table, she watched as Ryan smeared the mangled fish onto the bread using the butter knife instead of the one she had set out for him. It seemed petty to protest, but suddenly she wished he would go. The scrambled egg had lost its appeal and instead she went into the kitchen and opened a carton of bean and tomato soup. (p. 101)
This scene precedes any murders. The level of detail about many other things in this long run-up to action is equal to this minuscule examination of lunch. Much as I love details about food, I'm overwhelmed by it.

Similarly, when investigation of the murder finally gets going, there are many interruptions for details of the lives and thoughts of Adam Dalgliesh and his colleagues -- even their lunch in a hospital cafeteria that he remembers from a much earlier visit:
The grey brick opposite the high arched windows reinforced the impression that he was in a church. The tables he remembered... had been replaced by sturdier Formica-topped tables, but the serving counter to the left of the door with its hissing urns and glass display shelves looked much the same. The menu too was little different: baked potatoes with various fillings, beans and egg on tost, bacon rolls, tomato and vegetable soup and a variety of cakes and biscuits. (p. 197)
Yes, it's good to learn about a typical institutional cafeteria at the beginning of the 21st century when the story takes place. Yes, I like food detail. No, this isn't really appropriate for the pace I'd like to see in a murder mystery.

"The Third Victim" -- final section of the book -- begins on page 347 with a long suspenseful day in the life of Tally. After that, with less than 50 pages to go, suddenly the author is in a huge rush, and the coverage of the detectives' final solution to the murders seems almost cursory. I find the early chapters to be excessively detailed, and the end to be too little. Adam Dalgliesh was very appealing on the PBS mystery series, and I generally liked the book, but I have a problem with this.

In case you are wondering, for some reason I've had P.D.James books on my list forever, and finally read this one. If I did read any in the past it was so long ago I don't recall doing it.

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