From the Archives: Who Cares Who Killed … Whoever It Was?

I’m reading Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie, and I find I still feel pretty much as I did when I wrote this post in 2009: I’m more interested in the continuing characters than in the mystery plot they’re caught up in. Given the particular characters, I suppose it’s inevitable that a novel about them would involve some kind of crime story, and I appreciate what George is able to do with character development while still working in the procedural form. But I’m tempted to skim everything that’s not directly about Lynley and his immediate circle…


(Originally posted May 1, 2009)

I’ve just finished reading the latest releases by two of my favourite mystery novelists, P. D. James‘s The Private Patient and Elizabeth George‘s Careless in Red. (I know they’ve been out for a while; I was waiting for the paperback editions.) Both books are better than fine as examples of their type–though George is in fact American, both authors write what we could call highbrow British police procedurals, leisurely in pace, attentive to setting, driven by character more than plot. Both write well; James’s prose is more economical, while George’s would (IMHO) benefit from more stringent editing, but both offer their readers intelligent complexity of language and thought. The depth of character and theme both achieve justifies James’s repeated assertion that crime fiction provides a useful structure for the novelist without necessarily limiting the literary potential of her work.

Yet for all their virtues, I found myself unexpectedly dissatisfied with both of these novels, for reasons that are based in their form. Often in my course on mystery and detective fiction we talk about the limits working in this genre sets on certain literary elements, chief among them characterization. A mystery novelist can not afford to mine the depths of her characters as long as they are suspects in the case. This technical limitation is most apparent in writers of ‘puzzle mysteries,’ such as Agatha Christie, but even with writers who develop their people quite fully, as James and George do, an element of opacity is required, not just about their actions, but about their feelings and values, else we will know too quickly “whodunnit.” (There are exceptions, of course, as when some of the novel is openly from the point of view of the criminal, though often then we have inside knowledge without knowing the character’s outward identity.) The same limits do not, however, apply to the detectives–which is one reason, as historians and critics of the genre have pointed out, for the appeal of the mystery series. Across a series of novels, we can come to know the detectives very well, and a developmental arc much longer than that of any single case emerges. Though the case provides the occasion, after a while the real interest lies with the detective.

That, I think, is very much what has happened with both James’s Adam Dalgliesh and George’s Thomas Lynley. Every one of their books is populated by a new array of people, but they are the ones with whom we have longstanding relationships–remarkably longstanding, indeed, as James has been publishing Dalgliesh mysteries since Cover Her Face in 1962, and the first Lynley novel, A Great Deliverance, was published in 1988. And though Dalgliesh and Lynley have always been complex and interesting protagonists, in recent books so much of significance has happened in their lives that I turned to these latest instalments motivated far less by curiosity about the latest corpse than by the desire to know how things are going with them. While actually reading the books, I took a fairly perfunctory interest in the investigations but I was keenly interested in what came to seem the regrettably few sections focusing on, for instance, Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham (and not just because it’s a little victory for English professors everywhere). The real novelistic potential of The Private Patient emerges, I think, in the scene in which Emma confronts Dalgliesh in his professional capacity and we see, fleetingly, the difficulty that even these two extremely intelligent and independent people might have reconciling law and love, justice and humanity. But this material is not developed, and in fact the novel in which it does become the focus would have to leave the genre of detection quite far behind. (Gaudy Night is a rare example of a novel that I believe successfully balances human and literary interests with mystery elements, partly by integrating the case so thoroughly with the personal aspects of the story and making both the detection and the romance converge on the same themes.) Careless in Red spends more time on Lynley’s personal situation, but again his struggle to move forward after the tragedy of two novels ago (see how I’m avoiding spoilers, in case anyone hasn’t already read this excellent series?) is subordinated to the case at hand–though George does set the case up with thematic echoes of his tragedy.

I can hardly fault either author for the relative weight they give to the professional, rather than personal, business of their characters. That’s the kind of book they have undertaken to write. Also, as their protagonists are professional detectives, policing is integral not just to their work, but to their identities. But I do wonder if even James, the acknowledged Grande Dame of the genre, hasn’t finally shown us the end point (dare I say the dead end?) of a commitment to this genre. Just introducing the kind of story arcs they have given their protagonists recently suggests that James and George might be chafing at the constraints of detective fiction, wanting to write a straight novel of psychological and moral development, a novel in which incident is second to character, a novel squarely in the tradition James has always claimed as hers–that of Austen and George Eliot and Trollope. At any rate, that’s the kind of novel I find I wish they would write. Over the years they have succeeded in getting me quite emotionally involved in the lives of their main characters (and not just Dalgliesh and Lynley, either, but Kate Miskin, Barbara Havers, Simon and Deborah St. James…). The corpse and suspects, however, are never more than passing acquaintances.

On a somewhat tangential note, I was struck reading The Private Patient by the elegaic note on which it ends, in a passage which also echoes the wonderful ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage from Chapter XX of Middlemarch:

She thought, The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all the earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.

Though of course I would not rush to assume that a character’s views are those of the author, it is hard not to read this final paragraph from a novelist who has spent nearly five decades telling us about “deeds of horror” as a reminder, even a consolation, that even in a murder mystery, death need not define life.

3 thoughts on “From the Archives: Who Cares Who Killed … Whoever It Was?

  1. cbjames August 10, 2012 / 3:59 pm

    Lately, I’ve been having similar reactions to the mystery genre. I’ve recently read a few that I honestly thing would be much better books without the mystery plot. For one of them the mystery was almost a subplot.

    Your post has me wondering if the failing is with the genre or the author. Maybe I should say limitation. I do believe that an excellent mystery has as it’s central theme a mystery of some sort. When the character’s relationships threaten to take over the book, the author really isn’t writing a mystery anymore.

    I’m thinking this is like a sonnet. A sonnet as a clear set of rules that must be followed in order for a poem to be a sonnet. There’s lots of room within the sonnet form for authors to do al sorts of things, but if they break certain rules–add a 15th line for example–then they are no longer writing a sonnet.

    At this point I think both authors you mention above could write a novel about their detective characters with no mystery at all and still sell plenty of copies. Maybe even start a trend.


  2. Rohan August 10, 2012 / 7:24 pm

    I think the comparison to the sonnet is a good one. You have to still be able to recognize the governing conventions of the form. Having said that, I also think that there’s an awful lot of flexibility — even in a sonnet! I’ve been known to propose to my students that “Dover Beach” is a kind of exploded sonnet. And I’ve also argued against believing in a real distinction between mystery novels and “literary” novels (here, for instance). And having said that, I agree that mysteries need a mystery to be mysteries, and that both P. D. James and Elizabeth George could conceivably write a novel with no mystery about their detective characters and that would be great–or would it? How much do you suppose they depend on that skeleton of expectations to support their thinking about their characters? ‘Tis a muddle.


  3. Alex August 12, 2012 / 1:58 pm

    Is there also a question of the extent to which the reader depends on the ‘skeleton of expectation’ for their understanding of how the character is developing? We are used to exploring those characters within the confines of their continuing generic roles. I wonder how easy we would be at meeting them in a different environment? And would we ‘forgive’ a writer for stepping out of their usual milieu and writing a different type of novel? I suspect it would depend on what we were reading for. If it was an active read then probably we would be prepared to go with it. If it was something we had picked up for more passive escapism, then possibly not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.