I Heart P.D. James

P.D. James’ newest novel “The Private Patient” opens with the brilliant line:

“On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.”

Note how James weaves together the tiniest details with the dramatic final phrase and then surreptitiously pops in there the fact of upcoming murder. I’m instantly hooked. James is one of my favorite mystery writers, not the least because of her incredible characterization and insightful glimpses into humanity. It seems every book grapples with big unresolvable issues, from what we do in the face of injustice to how we retain compassion for others in the midst of horrendous evil to the awful admission that the capability for murder hovers somewhere inside us all.

But beyond fabulous writing, what is it about mystery stories that draws us in? I think it was Dorothy Sayers who observed that mysteries provide us with a framework in which to reconcile good and evil. There is something satisfactory about seeing justice done, even in a fictional world far removed from our own. I agree. Mysteries are some of the best escapist literature, because they give a sense of order, a world wherein the clever detective (who always has enviable qualities like literary genius or exceptional taste in fine wines) remains one step ahead of the culprit and brings the truth to light.

And if, as a reader, you’re able to keep up with the detective, then you feel extraordinarily intelligent. The detectives are always brewing strong cups of coffee (which inevitably makes me think I need a cup of coffee right NOW while I’m reading) to help them work through the case. I feel part of their little circle, always sure I’m on the right track, and then I fall for the little red herrings so cunningly planted in a well-plotted mystery. My certainty of the murderer’s identity is almost immediately followed with the big “Aha!” moment, when the pieces come together, and I’m able to see what really happened. That kind of reading gives even more satisfaction and is testimony to the power of an author’s creativity.

P.D. James does this incredibly well. I’ve just finished “The Private Patient”, and I’m still kind of flushed with the energy of the concluding chapters. Now to muddle through that post-book haze, when you have to leave the world of the characters and come back to reality. Perhaps I’ll go brew a cup of coffee and join the detectives for one final consultation.

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7 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

7 responses to “I Heart P.D. James

  1. Mark

    Except the idea’s cribbed right from “Stranger than Fiction” – which may well have cribbed it from elsewhere.
    (c. 1:55) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvNYzlScr_A

    šŸ™‚ But yes, she is good…

  2. Kate

    Mark, I was going to say “That sounded like Stranger Than Fiction”!! šŸ™‚

    I don’t know where Stranger Than Fiction got it – but it’s probably used by a lot of people – and since most of the audience will watch a movie before read a book – we just assume that the book cribbed from the movie…

    I could go on, but I won’t. šŸ™‚

    Marissa, I love mysteries!! I don’t know a lot about mystery authors, as I mostly stick to Aurthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I’ve been told to read (and not to read) Father Brown and I haven’t heard of P.D. James…

    BUT I hate it when I finish a story and have to realize that I’m in the real world again! šŸ™‚ I was reading Jurassic Park last semester and I kept getting freaked out “WE ARE GOING TO BE EATEN BY DINOSAURS” and I had to pause and look up to realize I was just sitting in the cafeteria, no dinosaurs in sight…LOL. Sigh. I am too imaginative for my own good, it seems.

    What else do you like besides mysteries? I started a blog just about books/authors – thelitcrit.blogspot.com and I put a list up of some of my favorite books (I keep listing b/c I can’t keep the minimum to 25!) on there – I wanted to know if you’ve read some of them! šŸ™‚

    -Kaitlin

  3. marissaburt

    It took me a minute to get the Stranger Than Fiction connection (which I’ll have to admit I really didn’t like despite the fun premise – I think it was the cardboard-ness (?) of the baker character). But I think you’re right, Kate – that kind of foreshadowing is probably a pretty common plot device, especially in mysteries. I just loved how the sentence read.

    You should check out P.D. James – she’s one of my favorite mystery authors and has written a lot. Kind of the typical British house-guest mystery – always in a beautiful setting, which is fun, and her characters are consistent and well-developed throughout the books.

    I do go on genre binges, though. A mystery spurt for awhile, but then I get glutted with the implied violence, and it’s too much. I’ll pop over and check your book list now. I’ve never been able to compile a favorites list – too difficult and too many variables.

  4. superhero princess

    I know, I keep adding to my favorite list…it would probably be way too easy to go over 100! :p

    Oh yes, the genre binges…what fun! I do that – with historical fiction, murder mystery…but then I just go back to children’s fiction…so good!

    I’m so glad you love L.M. Montgomery! The Blue Castle & the Emily Trilogy are my favorites, although I adore Anne. I just identify with Emily and Valancy – Valancy, especially. I felt for a long time that it was MY story, in some ways.

    I liked Stranger than Fiction, but it was because of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson – did you know Emma Thompson is a Jane Austen fanatic and wrote the screenplay for Sense & Sensibility (which she played Elanor in)? I don’t know if you’re a Jane Austenite (I’ve watched most of the movies and all the books except Emma, of which I’ve read part of – that one is JUST SO LONG) but they’re so lovely. šŸ™‚ Persuasion is my favorite of her stories…although Sanditon, written by Jane Austen and completed by “another lady” (after Jane Austen died) is great.

    I’m so glad we can chat about books, I’ve been DYING to talk to someone who loves them just as much as I do!!! šŸ™‚

    Hope you had a lovely Valentine’s Day!

  5. marissaburt

    Yes – I’m a big Austen fan, although I haven’t read Sanditon. The only one I couldn’t get into was Northanger Abbey, although it did make me want to go read some old gothic romances.

    I sense a fun bookish kindred spirit. Hmmm… maybe once the newborn craziness has passed, you and Stu can come over for some coffee (or tea if you prefer) and a good book chat. šŸ™‚

  6. Aaron

    I hereby shame you, Mark, for trusting “Stranger than Fiction” over PD James. Everyone said that movie was amazing. I was left severely unimpressed. Don’t get me wrong: Good actors acting well. The plot development, however, was… blah. Mark, how could you? I’m trying not to get myself in a fankle, but, well, you pushed a button I didn’t know I had. šŸ™‚ Thank you for permitting the rant…

    Marissa, do you know how to put an avatar in for posting comments?

  7. marissaburt

    I’m not 100% sure – I think you have to do it from your profile in google or whatever you are using to access the blog.

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