Open that window, Miss Menzies

Patricia Craig

  • A Taste for Death by P.D. James
    Faber, 454 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 571 13799 7
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine
    Viking, 300 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 670 80976 4
  • Dead Men’s Morris by Gladys Mitchell
    Joseph, 247 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2553 3
  • Laurels are poison by Gladys Mitchell
    Hogarth, 237 pp, £2.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 7012 1010 9
  • Dido and Pa by Joan Aiken
    Cape, 251 pp, £7.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 224 02364 0

The epigraphs of P.D. James (now that she has taken to using them) are important. ‘There’s this to say for blood and breath,’ runs the latest one, from A.E. Housman: ‘They give a man a taste for death.’ Are we being directed to hold in mind those other lines of Housman’s?

Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
For when the knife has slit
The throat across from ear to ear
’Twill bleed because of it.

Just such a shambles is evoked at the start of her new novel (her tenth), when the bodies of an ex-Cabinet minister and an unsociable tramp, each with its throat slit, are discovered in the vestry of a Paddington church. This is a splendid opening for a detective novel. Ruth Rendell likewise, under her new name of Barbara Vine, kicks off in striking style: ‘On the morning Vera died I woke up very early.’ Vera Hillyard, we learn within a line or two, is scheduled to die by hanging at the usual hour of eight in the morning. It is Vera’s niece Faith Longley, Barbara Vine’s narrator, who offers this information. What follows is an exhaustive look at the circumstances of the murder committed by Vera, and the life lived by her and her family before this event. We are soon in the past, in the Thirties and Forties, and engrossed in a story presented with all the expertise the thriller-writer can muster.

The Longley family is a heterogeneous one, accommodating various social classes; class, social behaviour and sexual morality matter in 1939, in ways incomprehensible to those born into a freer society; the murder and the motive, the narrator emphasises, were ‘of their time, rooted in their time’, and impossible to imagine in a different period. What do we have? Faith Longley, thirty-odd years on, recreating her wartime sojourns with her father’s sisters, Vera and Eden, the second still a schoolgirl in 1939, with her front hair rolled into a sausage shape, at their white-brick cottage in Great Sindon, Essex. Augmenting these recollections are some pieces of research work by an author engaged in examining the Hillyard case.

The Sindon household to which Faith becomes attached is pretty odd, what with querulous, prickly Vera, irresistibly blonde Eden, and provoking Francis, Vera’s son, who spends his holidays devising torments for his mother. Within a year or two another child is added to this intractable household, and it’s a tussle over the custody of this child, Jamie, that brings about the pivotal outbreak in the drama. But that is some way into the future: in the meantime Faith and her Sindon friend Anne Cambus rifle the life of Mary, Queen of Scots for scenes to play-act in a derelict cottage, while the Battle of Britain rages overhead, and Eden, at her dressing-table, applies cosmetic preparations to her flawless face. All this is set out with the surest feeling for the character of the era.

Ruth Rendell has written many detective novels of a fairly orthodox kind, and, interspersed with these, high-grade thrillers in which the course of events is determined by the maladjustment of someone among the leading players. With the second type of novel, it’s the author’s custom to lumber herself with preposterous or seemingly unmalleable ingredients, and then go on to surprise us by the skill with which she causes everything, in the end, to fall into the place devised for it. It is partly a matter of balance, as she handles two or more converging stories (within each plot), and keeps them from going off the rails. Only a slightly lurid aftertaste gets between these stories and our complete enjoyment of them: there’s no element of parody or black comedy in the situations Ruth Rendell envisages, not even when it comes to a man’s obsession with a dress-shop dummy, which leads him to act peculiarly in a basement. Why should there be, she might ask, when her theme is criminal derangement and the forms it takes – that, and the openings for depravity afforded by the modern world? Her new novel, under a new name, is equally chary of frivolity, but it also, by and large, cuts out the depiction of paranoia, which is very much a feature of the Rendell thrillers and detective novels alike. Vera Hillyard is not a woman in the grip of some revolting compulsion: it’s an intolerable pressure that causes her to act as she does. Ordinary life, in this book, is eroded by a malignant strain, instead of harbouring some such quality. The effect of this shift in approach is to bring the book close to the requirements of serious, rather than ‘genre’ fiction – a merger which the more accomplished among contemporary detective and thriller writers are always aiming to bring about.

P.D. James, who began by relishing the traditional features of the genre (the assembly of suspects and the interrelationship between them, the process of detecting, the surprises, subsidiary killings, twists of plot, and so on), and the constraints thereby imposed, seems to have reacted, in some measure, against the artifice inherent in any such prescribed plan of writing. (All along, it’s true, she has set herself the task of seeing how much reality the essentially artificial framework will bear.) It’s a naturalistic mode that engages her interest at present, even though her last novel, The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), resorted to a whole range of gothic embellishments to procure its effects. That book contains an epigraph and gains a title from the Eliot poem about Webster – a dramatist, like the author of detective fiction, much possessed by death. Friction and mystery, in a spot abundant in macabre associations, contribute to a full-blown atmosphere.

A flighty or insouciant view of death (an option available to the detective novelist as early as the mid-Twenties, when Anthony Berkeley and others began to poke fun, often very effectively, at the more conspicuous accoutrements of crime fiction) has never represented a serious temptation for P.D. James, who doesn’t shirk the painful or distressing realities connected with dying. No one in the James novels larks about with arsenic or turns a funeral arrangement into a jape; no significant stockings, boiled corpses, poisoned caterpillars, demonic conjurers or disappearing tins of rat-bane ornament these works. The novels don’t, however, exclude playfulness entirely. One in particular, Unnatural Causes (1967), is all but cast in the form of a parody, with the victim a novelist and creator of a figure – ‘an expert on wine, women, heraldry, the landed gentry, esoteric poisons and the finer points of the minor Elizabethan poets’ – rather closely akin to Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey. Incidentally, P.D. James’s own detective hero, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, with his supplementary profession of poet, is sometimes singled out for acerbic comment by those to whom the notion of a literary detective is a cause of exasperation: in the same way, Wimsey, with his blue blood, prodigious assets, including sensitivity and unshakable savoir vivre, got up the noses of a good many matter-of-fact readers. We may note that Dalgliesh is now (A Taste for Death) afflicted with writer’s block: perhaps the two professions, the one involving practical, and the other metaphysical, elucidation, are incompatible after all.

Dalgliesh last made an appearance in 1977, in Death of an Expert Witness; the two P.D. James novels published between that and the current one are, respectively, a non-detective story, Innocent Blood (1980), and The Skull Beneath the Skin, in which the investigator’s role is filled by Cordelia Gray, the young proprietor of a London detective agency, and heroine of an earlier adventure, recounted in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1971). Innocent Blood, like Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, is centred on a bygone killing and its perpetrator (a woman sentenced to life imprisonment and eventually released), and doesn’t derive its suspense from subterfuge; it’s closer in feeling to the present P.D. James novel than it is to its successor, The Skull Beneath the Skin – though that book, for all its immoderate imaginings (bones, burial places, slit wrists, executioners’ ropes, the whole charnel gallimaufry), manages to adumbrate some serious attitudes to death and dying, and has the admirable Cordelia Gray to keep us in touch with sanity and composure. Both Innocent Blood and A Taste for Death are set in London, a properly multifarious London, in which inherited grandeur is juxtaposed with various kinds of seediness and deprivation (P.D. James, like her namesake M.R. James, and like his namesake Henry James, finds places ‘prolific in suggestion’). Both, as well, consider the destructive consequences following on from the initial violence: ‘Murder was the first destroyer of privacy as it was of so much else,’ thinks Dalgliesh at an early stage in his current case. And although A Taste for Death is in many ways a classic detective novel, it doesn’t include the dumbfounding of the reader as a crucial part of its plan. The identity of the killer, once it’s disclosed, probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.

The book conforms to the classic pattern by containing a victim who numbers a cutthroat among his closer acquaintances, and by allowing the enquiry to focus on each of these acquaintances in turn. The significant victim is Sir Paul Berowne, whose recent resignation of his ministerial post may, or may not, be due to a mystical experience undergone by him in a striking-looking church called St Matthew’s, on the banks of the Grand Union Canal. The circumstances of the baronet’s life are soon laid bare: the unsatisfactory second marriage, the cadging brother-in-law, the daughter entangled with a parcel of would-be revolutionaries, the devoted mistress, the upright old mother given to acting autocratically, the deaths, while in his employment, of two young women. The ambience of nearly every person in the book, whether suspect, police-worker or onlooker, is very carefully established, so that we have a good deal about the tastes in interior decoration displayed by each: ‘Above the sofa was a line of watercolours; gentle English landscapes, their quality unmistakable ...’ Every character, too, comes complete with his or her curriculum vitae, and the resulting stories form an accompaniment to the main story, that of the murder, without necessarily being interconnected with it, or with each other. This arrangement wouldn’t have suited the age of jigsaw detection, when the puzzle was paramount: but it is perfectly in keeping with the freer modes of the present, and besides, P.D. James understands the part played by digressions, and even loose ends, in conveying the sense of anxiety and disruption which co-exists in her books with the exhilarating tackling of a problem.

We find such items, in A Taste for Death, as an enlightening smudge of blood and the clue of a half-burned match (about which the author doesn’t take a humorous tone); these hark back to an earlier variety of detective ficton, but they are only trifling decorations, inserted, perhaps, to remind us of the conventions, even while these are being more or less eschewed. Dalgliesh, whose character has been built up throughout the series, is notable for the bleakness, detachment and purposefulness of the way he goes about things: but he isn’t incapable of unbending. He unbends, for example, on page 203, when he brings as a gift for a book-collecting woman friend a treasure entitled (as he has it) Dulcy on the Game. ‘Don’t be naughty, Adam,’ comes the reply. ‘Dulcy plays the game. How lovely! ... This completes my pre-1930 Brazils.’ Unfortunately there is no pre- (or post-, for that matter) 1930 Angela Brazil story called Dulcy plays the game. Margaret plays the game, yes: but that’s by a different author, Winifred Darch. Is this a slip, or is P.D. James playing games, testing the alertness of her readers? It’s a moment of levity, in any case, and welcome in a book – albeit a continuously entertaining one – full of blood, malice and other disquieting particulars.

Gladys Mitchell, who died in 1983, had a jollier and more idiosyncratic approach to the business of crime writing. Her 66 detective novels – the last three brought out posthumously – all feature the same invincible investigator, Mrs Bradley (eventually Dame Beatrice), whom nothing nonplusses for long, neither the appearance of one body in the coffin of another, nor the apparent resurrection of a long-defunct figure. Speedy Death (1929) was the opening novel of the series, and it was planned by the author with a male detective in mind: it was only in the course of writing that the pterodactyl-like lady, twice widowed, and a psychoanalyst by profession, took over. Mrs Bradley – who is apt to provoke a suspect by giving him a good poke in the ribs – is nothing if not unorthodox in her investigative procedures.

The early Mitchell novels (some of which have been reappearing recently) are generally very high-spirited and blithe in tone, as well as being constructed on the thicket principle in detective writing: complications abound. Dead Men’s Morris (1936) – reissued in the ‘Classic Collection’ marking Michael Joseph’s 50th anniversary – is quite untypically straightforward and subdued, though it isn’t without moments of ebullience. One of these occurs when the elderly detective, needing assistance to get her nephew Carey out of a predicament in the middle of the countryside in winter, throws off her outer clothes and proceeds to run pell-mell through a wood in her knickers. The book is set in a pig-farming community of Oxfordshire, at which Mrs Bradley arrives bearing (unnecessarily) a boar’s head as a Christmas gift, and promptly encounters two local farmers – uncle and nephew – who are battering away at one another with, respectively, a blackthorn stick and a pig-bucket. One of these combatants later turns up gored by a boar, though not – as it turns out – the boar whose tracks surround the body: Mrs Bradley is there to ensure that no one gets the wrong pig by the ear. This is the second murder: some time earlier, an elderly solicitor has gone out to meet a ghost (a headless Elizabethan priest, according to legend) and met his death instead.

Gladys Mitchell departs from her usual custom in this book by showing Mrs Bradley at a loss, albeit temporarily, and even allowing her to succumb to depression, a state not normally associated with a character who is famous for her disconcerting cackle. She’s back on form in Laurels are poison (1942), the book in which strapping Laura Menzies, later to become Mrs Bradley’s secretary and assistant, first makes an appearance. She is a student at the Teacher Training College where Mrs B is acting as Warden and at the same time looking into the disappearance of her predecessor during an end-of-term revel: the unfortunate woman went off to pin up her back hair, and was never seen again. Before this matter is cleared up, the body of a cook has been retrieved from a nearby river, unaccountably separated from the corset that held it in place: it is left to Laura Menzies to bring this garment to light, which she does by going swimming in midwinter near the spot. Athletic behaviour is one of Laura’s traits. Mrs Bradley, too, is shown acting characteristically in this novel: ‘Now, students, I am going to do some very curious things,’ she announces. ‘Open that window, Miss Menzies ... I’m going to throw this student out.’ At one point she enlists the help of a visiting nephew to carry ‘a bag of bones’ along a gravel walk. Gladys Mitchell’s novels quite often, and with considerable aplomb, occupy a dicey area between spoof and serious detective fiction.

This author has been criticised for sometimes failing to make the motive fit the crime, and for letting obfuscation get out of hand (as Philip Larkin remarked in an Observer review, it’s possible to finish a Mitchell novel without grasping the identity of the victim, let alone that of the murderer). Sometimes her plots run away with her – though not in either of the current reissues, and not in her 1945 tour de force, The Rising of the Moon. She is, however, consistently diverting, and possessed of an agile imagination when it comes to the devising and disposal of incidents. Mrs Bradley is among the most striking investigators in the business, as she merrily goes about abolishing all kinds of weird cupidity and wrongdoing.

In Dido and Pa – the latest in a series of ‘unhistorical’ adventures for children which began in 1962 with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – a stop is put once and for all, one imagines, to intrigues on the part of Hanoverians unhappy with the Scots succession which is posited with such gusto by the author, Joan Aiken. At the forefront of the foilers, once again, is one-time urchin Dido Twite, a splendid embodiment of lower-class London gumption, who thinks nothing of sliding down a slimy old buttress into the icy waters of the Thames, and never turns a hair in the face of rats, wolves, termagants and other menaces. These books are as decorative and inventive as the Kay Harker novels of John Masefield, which they resemble.