Friday, June 06, 2008

P. D. James (Adam Dalgliesh Series)

I just realized that I only have two weeks to complete my Spring Reading Thing 2008 list. I’m almost done, but I’m irked with myself that I haven’t posted about the books... again. Fortunately for me I can cover most of the books in one sitting as they’re all a part of the same series. Whew! Grab your coffee because this review is a little longer considering that I've compacted all 14 books into one post.

I cannot entirely express how much I enjoyed reading through the P.D. James “Adam Dagliesh” series. James truly is a mystery writer extraordinaire. Her multifaceted story lines, with realistic characters and incredibly plausible nuances, add elegance and temerity to each of the books I’ve read so far. Not once have I said, “Yeah, right” when I’ve finished one of her books.

From her first book, Cover Her Face – published in 1962, to the last book to date, The Lighthouse which was published in 2007, James has continually perfected her exquisite writing skills and her cunning mystery mind. I have to admit that a few times while reading her, I’m really glad that she’s on the right side of the law. Were she not, people in England should have been worried!

Not only has she excelled as a wordsmith, she has taken, so far in my reading, a single character and developed him into a protagonist who makes you want to know more about him personally. While giving no timeline in these books, the reader does not know exactly how much time has passed between the mysteries, but time does continue in a sense. The Inspector is now a Commander; his books of poetry increase in number and other unwritten-but-mentioned-as-a-part-of-his-past connections are written into the stories. Despite not knowing the time, Dagliesh becomes more rounded, more detailed, more defined as a policeman as well as a member of society. Not only is he seen as a hard, cold, determined detective, his private passion as a poet leaves “the others” baffled by this often unseen softness. I’m enjoying thoroughly watching this leading man change, alter and grow as a hero and a human being.

Side not: James has introduced Cordelia Gray, a heroine that I find amusing, amiable and real. What I’ve seen of her, I’ve really liked and I anxiously anticipate returning to her as a central character. She’s young, determined and resourceful as a private eye. She was mentored by a man who formerly worked with Dalgliesh before being removed from the Yard. Often her thoughts prove that she was not only listening, but following the second-hand words from the best detective on the force.

James is not afraid to use taboo situations in her books. Though they might not be taboo in presently, back in 1971, homosexuality was unmentionable in most literature. She tastefully portrays those characters without describing any events in Shroud for a Nightingale. Her work in 1963, A Mind To Murder, was based on a psychiatrist office, a place that used many methods to help the patients - including LSD. In her 5th book of the series, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, one of the characters is found in a disturbing sexual situation. Yet the situation would be tame in comparison to some of the offerings of writers today. (Unfortunately, many of today’s authors aren’t any better than James, just more explicit.)

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve read through the books, I have to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. One quote from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman struck me when I read it. One of the elder characters made this comment to Cordelia Gray upon one of the first exchanges.

I don’t like your generation, Miss Gray. I don’t like your arrogance, your selfishness, your violence, the curious selectivity of your compassion. You pay for nothing with your own coin, not even for your ideals. You denigrate and destroy and never build. You invite punishment like rebellious children, then screen when you are punished.

Ouch! How much of that has been said when I was in my early 20’s. How much of that could be said of the youth today?

I love the response that Cordelia gives in return when the character ends with the idea that she (the speaker) is most likely jealous of youth as it is a common enough syndrome with older generations.

I can never see why people should be jealous. After all, youth isn’t a matter of privilege; we all get the same share of it. Some people may be born at an easier time or be richer or more privileged than others, but that hasn’t anything to do with being young. And being young is terrible sometimes. Don’t you remember how terrible it could be?

Such good social conversations are often found somewhere amongst the books.

After reading the series, I thought that James is either an atheist with a need to belittle others who have faith, an agnostic who hasn’t decided if God is worth the effort or a Christian who writes knowing that “evil is easier to depict than good.” Believe it or not, it’s the latter one that is the truth. She writes often where situations where those characters who possess zero faith not because of God, but rather because of humanity. She also creates characters who do have faith in the beginning is left with a solid belief in God and his ability to love or protect anyone on earth. Time and again, Adam Dalgliesh’s mind shows that he is unable to trust in God. (He, a son of a parish priest, lost all faith when he prayed to God for Him to save his wife and child. When he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he decided that God was a falsity.) Reminded that his wife died in childbirth, we are also told that Dalgliesh’s unbelief is not a sign of bitter rebellion against God so much as blank incomprehension at such suffering and death.

In Death in Holy Orders, one of the characters discusses the decline and inevitable death of church/religion. In reference to the priests in the theological college:

Oh they believe alright. It’s just that what they believe has become irrelevant. I don’t mean the moral teaching: the Judaeo-Christian heritage has created Western civilization and we should be grateful to it. But the Church they serve is dying. When I look at the Doom I try to have some understanding of what it meant to the fifteenth-century men and women. If life is hard and short and full of pain, you need the hope of heaven; if there is no effective law, you need the deterrent of hell. The Church gave them comfort and light and pictures and stories and the hope of everlasting life. The twenty-first century has other compensations. Football for one. There you have ritual, colour, drama, the sense of belonging; football has its high priests, even its martyrs. And then there’s shopping, art and music, travel alcohol, drugs. We all have our own recourses for staving off those two horrors of human life, boredom and the knowledge that we die. And now – God help us – there’s the Internet.

As the books have progressed, they have become more and more decisive and articulate about either the absence or the lack of need of God. It’s sad really. But it’s supposed to be a sad and sorry situation. James puts it out there, what it will be like if you have no hope in God, nothing else on which to rely. She illustrates the frightful loss society has incurred in the refusal to acknowledge any accountability to the good and just God.

I give two thumbs up to the series. Though they do not have to be read in order, I would still advise it. The flow of discovery about the characters is much smoother and cleaner and the stories keep getting better and better as they are produced. This series is a smart, concise, eloquently articulate rendering of murders with a detective who only seeks to follow his instincts... and his heart.

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