Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reading. James. (P.D.).

It has been cold and rainy as the days slide into November and head towards the heart of winter, perfect weather to curl up on the cushions, under a blanket, with a murder mystery in one hand and a chocolate bar (left over from Halloween) in the other. The shelves in my room are crammed full of mystery novels, collected over the past decade, enough to last me all through the winter; I am like a bear storing food for the long, cold months ahead, my apartment like a dark cave (there are no lamps in the living room, only overhead lights positioned awkwardly in relation to the shape of the room, the placement of furniture).

I am not sure how long I have been reading P. D. James; certainly not very long, and most certainly out of order. It is disconcerting to move back and forth in time, in and out of the lives of Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, the poet-policeman, and the younger members of his elite crime squad. Their personal relationships and heartbreaks and loves bloom against the shadows of murder that is their life's work. Dalgliesh is the heart of the story, the poet-policeman whose work is occasionally referenced (nearly everyone who speaks of his poetry comments that, unlike most modern poetry, it is not merely prose rearranged on the page) as a counterpoint to the crimes that otherwise occupy his thoughts.

The world of the crimes that Dalgliesh finds himself and his team thrown into is populated by the wealthy and privileged upper classes. The victims are doctors and professors and Archdeacons and society girls and barristers. The murderers are their friends and family and rivals and colleagues and lovers. Sometimes the murder is one of revenge, held close to the heart for long decades of bitter grief; sometimes it is done for the sake of someone else, even if that someone else had no idea that murder was being committed in their name. The woman are tall and beautiful, or not-beautiful-but-with-that-bone-structure-that-is-beyond-beauty, with hair falling loosely around the shoulders or pulled straight back off the face (all the better to emphasize all that bone structure); they wear perfectly cut skirts or trousers with polo-neck (that's turtleneck for us Americans) jumpers (that's sweaters to us) or cardigans with pearls, or they wear no jewelry because upper-class people don't need jewelry to show us how wealthy they are.

To draw us into the landscape that is about to be blown apart by sudden, violent, death, James describes everything with such beautiful tranquility that you can see in your mind's eye the grand houses that have become a publishing house or a small museum, or the windswept coast of an isolated island, or the sculpted-sand cliffs where a young man fell to his death. You feel the wind against your cheek, in your hair, the smell of the sea, and then everything is turned upside down by greed or revenge or random, senseless murder. It is an escape from the ordinariness of your own life, to which you return with a sense of loss, and relief.

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