Laudamus anyway
Mozart: Fantasia in C minor, K 475

P.D. James: The Black Tower

To my taste there's not a great deal of charm in the writing of P.D. James, at least in comparison with some other female British writers of detective fiction. She's not the kind of writer who makes me think "that was a nice stroke" at some turn of phrase or bit of wit. There's a somber quality about her prose, though it is smooth and graceful; the word "careful" comes to mind. And the plots are slow-moving and low-key--also careful, you could say. But of the four of her mysteries that I've read, three have stuck with me pretty well, which is certainly not always the case for me, with fiction in general and particularly with detective fiction. (However, the fact that I remember vividly at least a few important things from those books is not saving me from the inability to recall the names of two of them. That's age at work. The one title I do recall is A Taste for Death.)

One of those is a fairly early book which I remember because the identity of the murderer quite surprised me, not so much as a result of the intricacy and subtlety of the clues as that I was surprised that the character, who had certain qualities not ordinarily attributed to fictional criminals, in fact generally regarded with some sympathy, was in fact pretty vicious at heart. The other, a late one, is set among conservative and somewhat eccentric Anglo-Catholics, and the portrayal of the milieu was interesting in itself. (I suppose "eccentric" is almost redundant there: Anglo-Catholics are now almost by definition eccentric in the sense of being unusual in relation to Anglicanism at large.)

So now The Black Tower joins these other three, and one of the reasons is that it, too, is set in a small and somewhat odd more or less Christian community. In this case it's a nursing home for critically ill, mostly terminally ill, patients who require a lot of care. And I say "more or less" because its founder and head seems to be somewhat vague about his beliefs--or maybe that's just the Anglicanism (he said mischievously). At any rate it exists because of the founder's conviction that he had been miraculously cured at Lourdes, and he takes the patients who are able to travel on an annual pilgrimage there. Police Commander Adam Dalgliesh gets involved because an elderly priest (Anglican), chaplain to and resident of the community, has written to him asking for help with a situation the nature of which he does not disclose.

The role of the priest in the book is relatively small in scope, but quite important. And it's he who pretty much guarantees that I'll remember at least something of it. His original connection with Dalgliesh is that he had been curate to Dalgliesh's father, who was rector of a parish in a Norfolk village. And Dalgliesh remembers a conversation, in which he, age ten, had inquired about the daily diary kept rigorously by the priest:

"It's just an ordinary diary then, Father? It isn't about your spiritual life?"

"This is the spiritual life; the ordinary things one does from hour to hour."

James was in fact an Anglican, and not in a merely nominal way. She was a "lay patron," whatever that means, of the Prayer Book Society. And I think it's at least in part her serious Christian sensibility that gives her work, not explicitly Christian, its depth. 

As any fan knows, ITV (British) did a series of adaptations of several Dalgliesh novels back in the '80s. Roy Marsden played Dalgliesh in these, and I saw most (or all?) of them at the time (including The Black Tower, which I did not remember at all). I enjoyed them greatly, but whether it was Marsden's work, or the director's, or a difficulty in transferring the interiority of the character to the screen--probably the last--I found Dalgliesh a pretty vague character. Not so with this book. He seems very much alive, and more interesting than I remember. He's a quiet and close sort of person, and if you had to work almost entirely with his actions and speech it would be difficult to make him distinctive.

There is a new Dalgliesh adaption out, by the way. It's on the Acorn streaming service, which I don't have, so I haven't seen it. 


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I vaguely remember that episode. Had Dalgliesh been sick?


Right. It opens with him in the hospital. He had been told he was terminally ill, but he had been misdiagnosed. This brush with death causes him to decide to retire from the police force. But then he goes to this clinic/home and of course finds himself detecting again.

The one about the Anglo-Catholics is Death In Holy Orders (2001). The other one is Unnatural Causes (1967).

I've read a lot of detective novels over the years and the only two authors that I'd ever think about re-reading are James and Ian Rankin. Both of them present stories that are largely character-driven, with an emphasis on motives and psychology, which are features that most of the more plot-driven "puzzle" mysteries lack.

I'd have to look it up, but I recall that at some point James's work took a decided turn towards the "psychological," and that the later Dalgliesh books were considerably more complex in that way than the earlier ones. If I remember correctly there was a longish period during which she broke off from the Dalgliesh series, and when she picked it up again the emphasis had changed. I don't recall if the break was intentional or not.

I remember liking Peter Straub's "Blue Rose" mystery trilogy a lot, and might consider reading it again, but it's been at least 25 years since I've read it and my tastes have changed considerably since then. I no longer have much tolerance for graphic sex and/or violence and if I remember correctly the Straub books have both in notable amounts.

Never read anything by Straub or Rankin, but if you're classing him with James he must be worth investigating.

The chronology of the Dalgliesh novels does show an almost ten-year gap between Death of an Expert Witness and A Taste For Death, vs a typically 2-4 year interval between others. Black Tower comes in the earlier period and is pretty complex psychologically, not a "thriller" at all. Taste for Death is maybe more so, and is much longer. What I remember of it is just one or two scenes and an overall sense of complexity and subtlety.

I re-read Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler for sheer enjoyment.

And speaking of violence: I was very interested in reading James Ellroy, who is said to be the, or at least an, inheritor of the noir tradition. I started one, can't remember which one, and on about page 2 was slammed with a scene so gruesome that I just put it down and never went back.

And "put it down" is probably too mild. I may have thrown it.

Straub is a horror writer who also did some non-supernatural novels. Rankin's a Scot who writes procedurals, but fairly complex ones with strong characters. His main detective is John Rebus. His early books were more in the thriller mode, but they got deeper and more complex as he went along.

There is a British tv series called Rebus, which must be based on his work. It's very good.

Yep, that's it.

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