“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

9 thoughts on ““All These Things Tell You Something”

  1. Jeanne June 13, 2020 / 10:36 am

    Yes! Plus readers like me get exposure to concepts they don’t understand, like what an “Aga” is and what “dripping toast” might be. I spent a few years guessing what a “jumper” is (finally figured out it was not an athletic shoe; that’s called a “trainer”).
    I finally looked up dripping toast and rather than toast with butter, as I had vaguely guessed, learned that it is fried in dripping, which is something I could not have imagined.


    • banff1972 June 13, 2020 / 1:51 pm

      Huh, I did not know that about dripping. Thanks for sharing.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 13, 2020 / 2:44 pm

      My parents have an Aga.


  2. banff1972 June 13, 2020 / 1:55 pm

    Interesting material, Rohan, especially your point about how the poet and the detective come together here via details. I’ve only read a handful of Dalglieshes and James is not my all-time favourite, partly because the brooding poet thing always irritated me (Susan Hill has a similar detective IIRC). I’m wondering if recent events will change the way we react to detective/cop characters even more.
    To what extent are the novels I love (I say “I” because I think I like crime fiction more than you do, and also not to presume) a fig leaf for oppressive systems–yet another way late-capitalism asks us to value a spurious notion of individuality (lots of incompetent, lazy, maybe even crooked cops, but *our* hero isn’t like that)?


    • Rohan Maitzen June 13, 2020 / 2:43 pm

      These are certainly not new questions in critical approaches to crime fiction but they do take on some new resonance in today’s circumstances. Some crime fiction of course takes on questions about policing and oppressive systems really directly – including procedurals, right? Like the Martin Beck books, especially the last one. And some crime writers have also focused a lot on problems of gaps between the law and social justice — in fact, it’s a common concern. How far the form itself offers a ‘fig leaf’ would vary, depending on how this is handled. Some of these are questions I am thinking about as I work on notes for the piece this reread is for…


      • banff1972 June 13, 2020 / 3:12 pm

        Right, not new questions. I meant my question, I now realize, to be about James herself. Is *she* offering us that critique? I guess I’ll have to wait for the piece…


        • Rohan Maitzen June 13, 2020 / 5:37 pm

          We’ll see if that’s where I end up going with it!


  3. KeiraSoleore June 13, 2020 / 6:51 pm

    Beautiful exploration of James’ writing, and you’ve articulated exactly why I love her writing so much. There was a period of time when I read all her Dalgliesh books back-to-back and then her memoir. It was incredible to see how the writing in the memoir shows some of the workings of her books–not in plot or character, but observations, analysis, conclusions, what-you-call the “intensely personal.” It is through these details that you get to know James.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 15, 2020 / 7:58 am

      Thanks so much, Keira. Yes, I think she really only uses her detective plots as a structure for exploring ideas about character. Though that said, because she focuses her plots on crime her characters are often not very nice ones! 🙂


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