Wednesday, July 02, 2008

James: Henry and P.D.

(reflections on detective and "literary" fiction, after re-reading DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS and THE LIGHTHOUSE.)

The actor portraying Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard committed an unthinkable act of disloyalty to P.D James. She's the woman who created Dalgliesh in a series of novels going back to the 50s. The actor, last name Marsden, remarked, "Well, her characters are a bit received, aren't they?" I was startled. This was in an interview ostensibly promoting his collaboration with her in a BBC series. Also, up to then, I'd thought her characters were particularly rich.

I'd thought of her as another James. Stack her writing up against Agatha Christie, and her stories are so much richer in texture and darker in tone that P.D. James is to Agatha as Henry James is to, umm, O'Henry. I rushed out to buy A TASTE FOR DEATH when I heard her read aloud the eerie, stagey, gruesome scene of discovering two bodies -- a pauper and a prince of business -- lying at the altar of an old church, their heads sliced off and traded. Her second most stiking death scene is in an early novel, in which a rowboat washes ashore bearing a corpse in neat business suit, its hands neatly sliced off at the wrists. In all her novels, politics and faith, class and language figure.

But since Marsden's remark, I've read her a little more critically, and I see what he means. Commander Dalgliesh himself is meant to be a richly complex character who develops from novel to novel. But the complexities are schematic, as if James made sure that every corner of his life has its opposite: He is an unbeliever, but the son of a church rector. He has the upper class manners and education, but he has the bourgeois career. His work calls for unemotional logic and clarity, but he is also a famous poet. In several of the books, he strings a woman along (Emma Landingham, since DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS, and someone else in the 60s), but he regretfully keeps her at a distance because his work takes precedence. How much richer can a character get?

Here's where James is limited by her genre. In THE LIGHTHOUSE, Dalgliesh's love affair with Emma Landingham is reviewed in the prologue, and later it gets one chapter to itself. But, in the midst of hot pursuit of the villain, James keeps this chapter short, only two pages long, eight pages shorter than the average. At that length, I was still impatient to get through it, and skimmed to get back to the investigation. (And I skimmed the Epilogue about their relationship, too.)

It's another feature of the genre that we must meet a pretty large cast of characters, and they all have to be in place, with hints of motives, before the killing. After all, it wouldn't be much of a detective novel if, some chapters after the killing, an interloper unrelated to the story turns out to have done it. So, for efficiency's sake, it behooves James to give each character some exaggerated trait to help the reader recognize members of the whole cast with minimal description. Thus, in LIGHTHOUSE and HOLY ORDERS, we have some characters I still remember: the sexy but cool wife of the tragic surgeon, the tough but gay sailor, the pretty boy orphan raised by monks, the faithful but fiercely controlling abbot.

James herself says that her notions for novels always begin with a place. Once she has imagined the location, its history, and the people who might live there, she begins to have her story.

Those who disdain genre fiction have a case: These authors are all working within a clearly defined form, and they generate the characters and locations to fit the form. But how is that different from writing a symphony or a sonnet? James gives us variations on a theme, playing with characters and plot elements the way that a composer plays with themes and certain orchestral colors.

P.D.'s namesake Henry certainly did so, too, but at a stately pace that requires patience. Even his shorter ghost stories are long, densely textured pieces. The payoff is commensurately greater for the longer form, measured in moments remembered and treasured ( I still shudder when I say the names "Quint" and "Miss Jessel" from TURN OF THE SCREW), and discussions possible (I myself having at Duke written forty pages about how frequently characters say "no" in THE AMBASSADORS).

But we always read to be immersed in a world that is both recognizably ours and pleasingly different. Both Jameses get us there. How long do you want to stay?

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