Saturday, September 11, 2010
Death of an Expert Witness - P D James
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.