Detective Fiction and the Case of Adam Dalgliesh
There’s a lot to enjoy in detective stories. I have pounded the mean pavements of Chicago with the ill-organised V. I. Warshawski, marvelled at the low-life losers who hang out with Kinky Friedman, admired the technological acumen of Liz Carlyle, and laughed out loud at the failure of the Feng Shui detective, speaker of a learned but not idiomatic form of English, to communicate with a rap poet when standing in a queue outside a night club in Singapore (his exchanges with Joyce McQuinnie, his young Australian assistant, are masterpieces of comic writing.) The pleasure one takes in such writing goes far beyond the satisfaction one may occasionally gain from correctly identifying the villain.
But the fiction of P. D. James is in a class by itself. I am in awe of her ability to create an environment in which a murder can occur. A laboratory near a village, the office of a publisher by the Thames, a remote theological college, a hospital in a market town all emerge in a kind of wonderful thick description from which we get to know the lay out of the kinds of places we may never visit and the people who inhabit them. These deeply textured creations can be almost compulsively fascinating. And there is also the compelling figure of the detective, Adam Dalgliesh. He is dark and handsome, withdrawn to the extent that he could be considered aloof (can English women ever put Mr Darcy behind them?) All successful detectives seem to be unhappy, and one always expects there to be a bottle of whisky in the top drawer. Mourning his dead wife, Dalgliesh writes poetry that sells well enough for him to come across copies of his books in the rooms of people whose murders he is investigating. Recently, however, he has been becoming involved with an English don at Cambridge. While I don’t begrudge him happiness, I hope it doesn’t come at the expense of his prowess as a detective.