Saturday, September 11, 2010

Death of an Expert Witness - P D James

P D James has just celebrated her 90th birthday and, as she is one of my favourite mystery writers, I thought I should celebrate too. I’ve reread Death of an Expert Witness and, as it’s been many years since I read it, it was just like reading a new book as I’d forgotten all the details. Death of an Expert Witness was published in 1977. P D James was a well-established writer by this time. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 & her latest novel, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. I hope it won’t be the last, although there was certainly an elegiac feel about it. Lots of loose ends in the personal & professional life of her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, were tied up & it was a fitting end to the series if it is the end.

Adam Dalgliesh is one of the most enigmatic detectives in crime fiction. Like all the best detectives – Wexford, Poirot, Jane Marple – he arrived on the scene fully formed & has aged so slowly that he seems scarcely older in the latest book than he did in Death of an Expert Witness, published over 30 years before. Dalgliesh grew up in a Norfolk rectory; lost his wife & only child in childbirth just before the first book was written; has had several unsatisfactory relationships since but has only recently met the right woman, Emma Lavenham, proposed to her & been accepted. He is also a poet & this only adds to his air of mystery & detachment.

P D James is the heir of the great Golden Age writers, especially Dorothy L Sayers, who she greatly admires. I have a BBC audio production of Gaudy Night & at the end of the story, there’s an interview with P D James & Jill Paton Walsh, a novelist who has written continuations of some of the Wimsey novels. She has a new book coming out very soon, The Attenbury Emeralds, that I’m looking forward to reading. The interviewer was quite out of her depth, obviously knew very little about Sayers, but James & Paton Walsh were marvellous in their depth of knowledge & their enthusiasm for Sayers as a woman & for her work. That knowledge & enthusiasm for the Golden Age conventions of mystery fiction is obvious in her work.

P D James works within the conventions of the traditional murder mystery. Her books often have a closed circle of suspects like the stately home mysteries of the 30s. The locations are closed communities such as religious institutions, schools, hospitals, legal chambers or a publishing house. In Death of an Expert Witness, it’s a forensic laboratory in the fens of Norfolk. Place is very important to James. She has said that her books often begin with a place, a landscape. She builds up a picture of a group of people. Murder shockingly intrudes on the lives of the characters & Dalgliesh & his team must bring order out of chaos. In Death of an Expert Witness the first 50pp introduce the reader to the scientists, pathologists, police officers & clerical staff of the Hoggatt’s Forensic Science lab. Edwin Lorrimer, the Senior Biologist, is a stern, secretive man. He was overlooked for the post of Director of the lab, he’s tormented by the end of a love affair & he is unforgiving in his treatment of any of his staff who can’t meet his high professional standards. When he is murdered in his laboratory there are many suspects & Dalgliesh needs all his skill to discover which of these people was driven to murder.

Much as I enjoy a good murder, I think my favourite book by P D James isn’t a murder mystery at all. In 1999, she published Time to be in Earnest, a diary of her 77th year. I found this book fascinating. I love diaries & letters but this was more than just a diary. It’s the closest thing to a memoir or autobiography we’re likely to get from P D James. She knew she was writing for publication & so she uses the diary to look back over her life. She talks about her childhood, her marriage, her work in various government jobs, all of which gave her valuable material for her books & her thoughts about life in Britain in the 1990s. She talks about her favourite writers, how & why she writes, her long relationship with her publishers & agents, all the minutiae of a writer’s life. She is also an incredibly busy woman, attending meetings & events connected with her work for the Society of Authors, the BBC, House of Lords & the Church of England.

I love reading about detective fiction as much as I enjoy reading the novels themselves. P D James wrote a wonderful book last year called Talking About Detective Fiction. It was written to raise funds for Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This little book, only 150pp, is a history of the detective novel with special emphasis on the writers James most admires. The core of the book for me was her discussion of the four great women writers of the Golden Age – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham & Ngaio Marsh. She feels an obvious affinity with these writers & has an appreciation of their strengths & the appeal they had in their own time & analyses the influence they’ve had on the writers who came after them. If you want a concise history of the best detective fiction of the last century, there could be no better guide than P D James.


  1. What a great celebration of a great lady, Lyn! I also love her writing - especially the Dalgliesh series, but also Cordelia Gray. She has been writing for so long that she is like a living link to the Golden Age and its wonderful female writers. I was lucky enough to see her speak this summer and she was a force of nature. She stood up and spoke without notes for 50 minutes, rocklike even with no podium for support; she was fluent, assured and absolutely fascinating – and dealt with the questions with humour and humanity for a further fifteen minutes, and looked as if she could go on for hours. Oh, to be so articulate at ninety!

  2. You have really opened my eyes to PD James, I know my mum is a great fan, but for some reason, unlike Agatha Christie she has never passed on to me her love of them or recommended them. I wonder why? I will have to ask her next time I see her.

    I think it is amazing to still be writing and formulating ideas at such an age!

  3. I am a fan of P.D.James' mysteries, but like you I really loved "Time to be in Earnest" which is as you say probably all we'll ever get as an autobiography from her.
    It is a marvellous way to write one, as she can use anniversaries to tell as much of her past as she wishes & doesn't get bogged down in trivia.
    She's a great writer & speaker, and I'm hoping she might have a manuscript or two squirrelled away in a bottom drawer. Treva

  4. Rosy, I'd forgotten Cordelia, I loved those books. I read somewhere that after the TV series was made, PDJ didn't feel she could go on writing about her as she was so upset at the changes to the character the TV writers had made. I saw her at the Melbourne Writers Festival some years ago & she was wonderful. I heard her on the radio just a few weeks ago in an interview on a radio book show. As you say, she is a living link with the Golden Age. Treva, it would be wonderful if there was a MS or two put away for a rainy day, like Agatha Christie did. Maybe something non-Dalgleish like Children of Men? or another memoir.

  5. Blogspot ate my comment! I wrote in great detail about my appreciation of your wonderful PD James entry. I, too, enjoy her mysteries but am in true awe of her literary abilities.

  6. I love P D James and I think I love Adam Dalgleish more. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  7. I feel so sad. While in college, I was merely mentioning in our literature class that I loved and admired, Agatha Christie, my learned professor interrupted me and asked, 'what do you know about P D James?' I said, PD who?' The class yelled at me, 'P D James, idiot!'
    Ashamed, I went to the school library and borrowed one of her mystery novel, 'Cover her Face.' Since then, it was a journey into a quality writing. Just believe me, I collected her novels in hardcover and paperbacks, new as well as used, just for keeps, more than one hundred copies. She need not write one single book after her first one. I would have collected all available copies, as well. I miss her, already. Thanks for your patience. ...and I am Sid Harth @elcidharth

    1. She was a wonderful writer & a witty commentator on all things to do with mystery fiction. I enjoyed all her novels.