Reading the detectives (The Black Tower – PD James)

September 7th, 2008 by amy

I recently re-read P.D. James’ The Black Tower and remembered again how much I like her work. Her stories are literature not the lurid voyeurism sometimes found in mystery novels. She has said: “The classical detective story is rather like the modern morality play… The classical detective story affirms our belief that we live in a rational and generally benevolent universe.” I think this is part of the great appeal of this genre (any airport book shop will show the popularity of the type).

Her work is emotionally cool, a bit distant, intelligent but never clinical; she is careful and respectful of the characters she creates. James doesn’t write mystery thrillers as much as mystery contemplatives. I like the complexity of the emotions of her characters and especially the introverted, perceptive and emotionally distant Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh is intelligent, sensitive, cultured and if not exactly snobbish, rather easily repulsed – not by violence or gore but by ugliness (of buildings, clothing, sounds, or sometimes, emotion). His saving grace, what makes him fascinating and an identifiable protagonist, is the window we get behind his forbidding and distant exterior to his thoughts and the almost obsessive cataloguing of his ideas, associations and feelings. He is also, almost certainly, a depressive. He is perceptive enough to recognize his own rather cold detachment from most situations and people. He is well aware of his own short-comings and he is morally and mentally strong enough not to excuse them in himself but rather holds himself to a greater internal standard than he expects from the outer world.

In the very beginning of the book, after an illness which the doctors had mis-diagnosed as fatal, Dalgliesh thought:

…It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy. Now he had to lay hold of them again and believe that they were important, at least to himself. He doubted whether he would ever again believe them important to other people.

On his way to visit an old family friend he stops and is taken by surprising joy:

Before he turned again the to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the pure physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it was, the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good.

Just a few lines later, after having been confronted with a rather ill-designed building and pausing to decide which direction to take, he has a kind of bleak foreboding. I think in some ways this functions both as a plot foreshadowing and, in Dalgliesh’s inevitable swing back from simple joy to a kind of despair, a deeper exploration of his sensitivity and psychology.

He had briefly turned off his car engine while deciding what next to do and for the first time, he heard the sea, that gentle continuous rhythmic grunt which is one of the most nostalgic and evocative of sounds. There was still no sign that his approach was observed; the headland was silent, birdless. He sensed something strange and almost sinister in its emptiness and loneliness which even the mellow afternoon light could not dispel.

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