Saturday, November 28, 2009

3 x P.D. James and a long ponder about coffee in crime fiction

Remember I  said that I wanted to read an old P.D. James to compare with the new ones? Well, I did, I went back to the library and borrowed the newest, The Private Patient from 2008 and Innocent Blood from 1980, and then I realised that Innocent Blood wasn't a Dalgliesh novel so thus not perfect for comparisons, so I went back again and borrowed Shroud for a Nightingale from 1971, which I at first had discarded because I had such a distinct memory of reading it - whereas I have a far more vague recollection of, say, Cover Her Face - but I took it in the end because all the others were taken.

So I dove into P.D. James-land, old and new, and tried desperately to pay attention to what I was thinking while I was reading, so I could relate those thoughts later. For what it's worth. I remember noticing how, in the older books, she often mentions the clothes using expressions like "made from good wool", whereas she seems to use less of these qualifiers in the newer ones, choosing instead to describe the clothes and perhaps say something about "from an expensive brand" or similar. Which I think is quite telling. We aren't as good at telling quality anymore, we just know brands. Expensive has become good in itself. But it's interesting how she uses clothes to describe people, to define them. In Shroud for a Nightingale of course the nurses' uniforms too say a lot about them - one chooses to wear a more old-fashioned cap, another sticks to the army nursing uniform she was trained in.

Another thing: when reading Innocent Blood I was suddenly struck by the fact that people in P.D. James' world always drink such great coffee. And then I started noticing and remembering that this is true of lots of crime fiction I read (in English, Swedish is a whole other kettle of java folks) - they're forever taking beans out of the freezer and grinding them to make fresh, strong coffee. From John Grisham to Caroline Graham, not to mention the much older ones. It's EVERYWHERE. Once I started thinking about it I couldn't help but be really struck by it. Now, my experience of Anglo coffee culture is a jar of instant and the electric kettle beside it. I have no personal experience of American coffee, but all my reliable sources (i.e. friends who have been there) say that the stuff people in general drink is vile. So where does this love of bean-grinding come from? Is it an attempt to convert people? Is it just that crime writers somewhere somehow pick up excellent coffee habits and can't imagine their characters drinking anything else? Is it some sort of inside joke? Or is it a class thing - have the middle to upper middle classes (and above) always had good coffee? It just tickles me that there is no middle ground. It's either crap instant coffee OR freshly ground beans and the infusion method. To me there's an intermediate level, and that is buying coffee ready-ground and a drip-style coffee maker. Which is what we have, like, I'd wager, most Swedes. In fact, even though I have a few friends who have oh-la-la espresso makers, I doubt they grind their own beans to be honest. Anyway, P.D. James is a great one for good coffee. It honestly doesn't seem to cross her mind that anyone would make coffee any other way. Oh, I didn't bring the books now (am at work) so I can't check for sure. This is from memory. Possibly the odd jar of instant pops up, but then it's a Telling Thing, I'm sure, like the quality of their clothes. (No prize by the way for guessing what I want for Christmas now.)

I also realised what has bothered me a lot when reading P.D. James - I have time issues. I don't get a clear sense of the time, the when we are talking about. This is silly, because she states the "when" very clearly. Often the book is divided into sections that are dated, so we know where in the investigation we are (July or 10 Aug for example). And the year is the Now, it's not a distant past or anything, just think Now and you're there. But I'm still disoriented. I think it's partly because she creates characters that are not really contemporary. They seem vaguely timeless - if music is discussed it's always the classics, ditto for books, and somehow there is such an emphasis on class that I don't know when I am. And then there's the classic problem of the never-aging detective. In Shroud for a Nightingale Dalgliesh's obnoxious side-kick Masterson thinks of Dalgliesh as "the old man", and Masterson himself is 28 or so. So surely Dalgliesh should be at least 50? Or nearly so anyway. Nevertheless, he seems to be about 50 in The Private Patient too. Or alright, maybe 60. A little closer to retirement. Coupled with the slightly archaic feel to a lot of her characters I end up feeling decidedly lost. It wouldn't happen if she wasn't actually a very realistic writer, someone I take seriously. There are some writers were I don't even notice anachronisms if there are any, but with James I would.

So do I actually really and truly like P.D. James? I think I have to answer yes, because it's impossible to say no. Shes' still one fo the greatest. But I don't, or at least very seldom, feel a strong compulsion to read something she's written. It doesn't really warm the cockles of my heart. It's somewhere in between. Hm.

Innocent Blood
, first, is a stand-alone, one of those crime novels that are acclaimed for being "real literature" and not just detective stories. A young woman, Philippa Palfrey, has always known that she is adopted, and as soon as she legally can she finds out who her biological parents are. To her shock she discovers that she is the daughter of convicted murderers - her father raped a 12-year-old girl, and her mother strangled her. Her father died in prison and her mother is just up for release. Philippa decides to spend the summer with her mother in London. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered girl is looking for them, to take the revenge he promised his wife before she died. It's a novel about the repercussions of crime, and how people cope - and thankfully not so much about whether "bad blood will tell". A lot of commentary on the political tension of the times, and the shift to a gentler, sociological attitude towards criminals, and whether this is right. I can't really fault the book, but it's not a favourite of mine. I don't understand the way the characters behave (apart from the father of the murdered girl). None of them really touch me. I am more interested in the descriptions of a London that is now gone, how Philippa hunts for a flat and so on. One of my problems with P.D. James is clear in this book, and that is how people tend to speak the same way. Granted, she'll have a few of the lower classes talking slang, or with an accent, or what have you, but the middle class she writes about tends to all use the same language. It just annoys me a little that Philippas mother, who isn't supposed to be very educated, talks with much the same vocabulary as Philippa. Another thing which is interesting is that she doesn't really focus on the horror of a paedophile raping a young girl, not the same way as we'd do now. As a matter of fact I get the distinct feeling that the girl sort of has herself to blame? Unpleasant, but something is definitely off.

Shroud for a Nightingale
is also interesting for its historical value, as it describes a shift in nursing education and the general view on and attitude towards nurses and nursing. Not in great detail you understand, but there is information there. The nurses in the book still wear more elaborate uniforms and some of the older ones emphasise the ideals they were trained under - in retrospect the descriptions in McEwan's Atonement were useful to me; I didn't even write about the passages on Briony's nursing training at the time, but now I think I get it. Oddly, I started thinking about an old Ladybird book I had as a child - still have it somewhere. It was about nurses and very retro. Without having read that I don't think that I'd understand all the things she writes about uniforms, spinsterhood as a requirement, staff housing for nurses etc. Ladybird books... oh, I'm having an acute nostalgia attack. They just aren't the same anymore. I must give them a blog entry sometime. Anyway, storyline: in a private hospital with a nursing school attached, housed in an inappropriate old formerly private house, one of the nursing students is killed during a demonstration. Later another is found dead in her room, and then Dalgliesh is called in. The very unsympathetic officer Masterson functions as a contrast to Dalgliesh, the gentleman. This is good detective story, with no dead bits and a bit of a surprise at the end. I remember liking it last time too. I did get a bit overwhelmed by an abundance of names though, but I just went with it. It's not James, it's me, I'm easily distracted.

The Private Patient is also set in a hospital, but I didn't think of that when I was choosing the books.Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, has decided to remove a very disfiguring scar. She opts for the surgeon George Chandler-Powell, and decided to go to his private clinic in the country instead of having the operation in London. During the night after the operation she is killed, and it's evident that someone connected to the clinic did it.

I really enjoyed this book, and I agree with all those who think that it's James's farewell novel. She wraps up all loose ends and lets everyone be happy (pretty much). It's one of the most hopeful of her novels. Maybe that's why I liked it, because even though the melancholy is there it's offset with love and dreams for the future. So read this if you haven't! It's a good-bye from one of crime fiction's best.

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