Remember Satyajit Ray? Steven Spielberg? Tom Hanks? Nana Patekar? Frederick Forsyth? Le Carre? A.R.Rahman? Okay, I’ll stop there. These folks have one thing that’s common to them all – they stepped across the line in to genius territory and when the next film or book bearing their name comes out, I make sure I go for it. I don’t wait for the reviews. I don’t have to, I know it is going to be worth every penny I spent on it.
Likewise, I am sure you have drawn up your own list of “the infallible” – folks you swear by, whose work you’ll stop at nothing to experience.
This loyalty transcends – there was a recent Kent Monkman exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I didn’t stop to read a review of his paintings, I just went for it. Again, I am enthralled by Smirnoff Cranberry – a mildly sweet drink with 30% alcohol that kinda opens up my grey cells, makes them think of outrageous possibilities that otherwise would not exist in my dreary Walter Mittyish world. It’s the same thing – I would take anything that Smirnoff dishes out.
Getting back to books, there’s one name I have decided belongs right up there among the stars, one who delivers the same titillating joyride that all those gents in para-2 (and Smirnoff and Kent) do – Phyllis Dorothy James (1920-2014).
Doesn’t strike a bell? Perfectly understandable, she is known to us crime fiction lovers as simply “P.D.James”. I am reading a posthumus work by P.D. James – Sleep no more – and I am loving it.
Her writing style harks back to the 1920s’ and 30s’ Agatha Christie, but it is more ‘psychological thriller’ than straight whodonit. In fact she is more Daphne Du Maurier than Agatha Christie. Dark gothic mansions, treacherous half brothers, stone-faced butlers, murderous cousins, daft uncles… that sort of ambiance.
Besides, with PDJ you already know ‘whodonit’. Knowing who the culprit is from the start can present a puzzle for mystery fans. But PDJ has a knack that makes you say ‘who gives a fuck who the murderer is?’ PDJ’s forté is in how the whodonor did it. You could call her writing a “whereandhowdonit”, I guess.
And it’s the style – there is none of that good and evil crap that most crime fiction ultimately wants readers to see. PD’s style is sardonic, cynical and darkly humorous and that get’s to you. There’s pain, rejection, lovelessness and despair. You end up placing yourself in the murderer’s shoes and actually empathizing. There are no serial killers, no axe murderers, just folks like you and me – ordinary decent respectable citizens who are driven to do the unthinkable – kill.
In the book’s foreward, Peter Kemp says that James “takes the golden age of crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, deepens it emotionally, complicates it morally and psychologically and gives it a second golden age.” Add to that a murderer who never gets caught, it seems to resonate in today’s vigilante ethos.
The plots in “Sleep no more” are exquisitely crafted. In “The Yo-Yo”, a retired judge recalls how, at age 13, he witnessed a murder and lied to police to protect the murderer. It’s not the only instance in this book where a child hides evidence.
“The Murder of Santa Claus “ is set in an English manor house, Christmas of 1939. A boy of 16 is spending the holiday with his wealthy uncle who also happens to be an obnoxious guy. The uncle had invited the boy to his home for Christmas because he was toying with the idea of leaving everything in his will to the lad, when he is killed. Here too the murderer gets away, because the author considers it a just execution.
But the short I identified with the most (note that I didn’t use the word ‘enjoyed’) was “The girl who loved graveyards”. A girl whose mother died while giving birth to her, left by her father to live with her cold, psychologically sadistic grandmother, at 10 and what follows from then. It hit close to home.
Hit close to home for sure – I was three years older at 13 when my father saw it fit to dump me on an aunt who was cold and resentful and stopped just short of actual physical abuse – all because his marriage to my mother was breaking up and he thought abandoning me at the hands of folks who didn’t give a flying fuck about me was a great way forward in my upbringing.
After every vacation, I would clutch my mother’s hand and not let go as she stood with me at the rail station and intoned, “It’s only for a year or two more, dear. It’ll be over before you know it and then you’ll be out of school and we’ll be together again and you’ll look out for me and I’ll look out for you…” I vividly remember looking into those pleading eyes that begged me for an adult response. They said, “Please, say this is okay and you’re fine with it…” A similar kind of mind fuck is in this P.D.James story. But I digress.
The author’s talent in fleshing out her characters is awesome. Her characters seem to leap out of the pages at you. Take Rodney Millcroft, in “Mr Millcroft’s birthday”. Here’s how the author speaks of him….
”Rodney Millcroft was a consultant dermatologist with a large and highly lucrative pratice which caused him little trouble. His patients rarely called him at night, never died on him and since they were as difficult to cure as they were to kill, he had them for life…”
And here’s her description of Vera Pelling, a character in “A very desirable residence”……
”…..Vera Pelling, the Junior Science Teacher, poor girl, was such an unattractive bore that there weren’t many alternatives open to her. Vera Pelling is the living refutation of the theory of those women’s beauty and fashion magazines, that any woman – if she takes the trouble – can make something of her appearance. Nothing could be done about Vera’s pig-like eyes and non-existent chin….”
I usually switch between genres while I am reading. That means reading multiple books at the same time. Kinda like having your spicy fish curry and rice and at the same time dipping into the sweet mango chutney to refresh the flavor. At the moment, astronaut Scott Kelly’s “Endurance” is the mango chutney and the main course is “Sleep no more”.
“A very desirable residence” is as far as I have gotten. There is still one story left in “Sleep no more” but I am taking my time reading it. Crime fiction can get to you after a while.
And thank god I have the ‘mango chutney’ to freshen me up. Even in reading, it pays to have a Plan-B.