“Love, lust, lucre, and loathing can be the motive for murder”. This rather alliterative list of motives is mentioned by Phyllis Dorothy James in one of her books. She is a classic murder mystery novelist who represents the rare combination of style and substance. She admits to have consciously chosen to write as P D James as it may well be perceived by an average reader to have been written by a man than a woman.
Humoring our pet prejudices and playing with our perceptions are not the only things she teases you with – for me a book by her is more than a murder mystery, it can rather be regarded to be a complete novel in itself with complex plot and characterization. It is something like when Agatha Christie meets Jane Austen. Indeed her latest book, ‘Death comes to Pemberley’ is a rich tribute to her favourite writer’s popular novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
Just like Christie had Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, James created the characters of Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Grey. And Dalgliesh seems to have caught the fancy of the writer and her fans, for he is featured in 14 novels spanning a period of just over 45 years. Talk about longevity and evolution of the character! But she posited his personality rather early on and the reader loves to see it being reinforced – Dalgliesh is calm and composed, he treats crime with a serious dispassion, he is rarely ruffled, he treats the victim and all people involved with polite respect, he never allows any opportunity to crack his case escape and amidst all this finds time to lead an intensely private life and dons the hat of a brooding poet.
James helps the reader understand matters beyond the crime itself – she is familiar with the bureaucracy of a large organization and indeed one finds Dalgliesh occasionally battling boardroom games apart from solving his cases. James gives a full run to many themes in her works through the other characters involved with Dalgliesh – we have Kate desperately trying to shake off her impoverished upbringing in a rough neighborhood, Massingham comes across as an accomplished and arrogant professional who enjoys his privileged upbringing and inherits his father’s political heritage, Benton-Smith represents a cross-cultural family, someone who enjoys challenging Kate and engages her in psychological games. At the heart of it remains Dalgliesh handling diverse characters and relationships with ease and always commanding the respect of his team.
As we go along James gives us her take on consumerism, materialism, free market economy, spirituality, troubled relationships, disturbed childhood, lack of character, lack of the stoicism required to face up to the routine challenges one faces in the personal and professional domains. She reinforces the popular message though – in life what matters is freedom of thought and freedom of action. So no matter whatever are your personal circumstances and challenges, you always need to choose your course of action and pursue your dreams. It’s amazing to read her novels like ‘Devices and Desires’ that handles a sensitive subject like use of nuclear energy for power generation in such a balanced manner.
James pulls no punches while acknowledging the realities of our lives and yet she is very compassionate in her approach – she yearns to understand, acknowledge and motivate people to examine their lives and make choices that will help them to grow and derive satisfaction justified as the fruits of the hard labour and toil put in by them.
No wonder it is a privilege to read and appreciate her intelligence applied not only towards creating credible characters and canny plots but also towards providing us ‘object lessons’ and commentary on social trends and on various issues that impact our personal and professional life. Entertainment and education is a rare package and we should indulge ourselves by gorging it all up.