The Delicate Aura of Mayhem

P. D. James is depressing. She’s a fine writer; this is not a criticism of her talent or technique. At least, not directly. It’s the materials she chooses for her stories that cast long, gloomy shadows.

Right now I’m reading The Murder Room. She takes her time with the build-up. We’re more than a quarter of the way through the book before the first murder takes place. We get a chance to meet five or six major characters — all of whom will become suspects. And there’s not a ray of sunshine to be seen anywhere.

The weather itself is bad: It’s the end of October, and rain is falling. We meet a man who has terminal cancer. Another character is clearing out his desk at the end of an undistinguished career, and reflects on his own lack of emotions. When he reaches home, we learn in passing that his wife has been having affairs for years. This man’s younger brother is a psychiatrist who makes house calls (how low can you get?); the only patient of his that we meet is an old man with Alzheimer’s whose wife soon commits suicide. One of the women suspects is plain in appearance and of a dour disposition, and has moved from job to job for years because employers didn’t appreciate her lack of bubbly enthusiasm. Another of the women comes from a lower-class impoverished background, and worries about her future.

Okay, if you’re going to take your sweet time getting to the murder, you’d better give the reader a few hints that awful stuff is about to happen. But shortly after the murder, James goes over the edge. Adam Dalgliesh, her sleuth, is called in to take charge of the case. In consequence, he has to break a dinner date with the lovely lady he has been seeing. Just to be clear, Dalgliesh’s girlfriend understands perfectly well that he’s a policeman, and in consequence may be called out at odd hours. Also, they appear to have been on a total of four dates, and there’s no indication that they’ve even slept together. Yet James describes Dalgliesh’s thought processes this way:

“And now he had to telephone Emma. Back in his own office, he was swept by a desolation as keen as the half-remembered disappointments of childhood and bringing with it the same superstitious conviction that a malignant fate had turned against him, judging him unworthy of happiness…. As he punched out the numbers on his mobile, he wondered if this call would be the last time he would hear her voice. The thought appalled him. If she decided that this latest frustration was the end….”

Emma isn’t home, so he says a few words to her flatmate (who calls him a bastard). As the passage goes on, there’s more. “He had mishandled the call, had been unreasonably offensive to a woman.” And so forth. The woman has just called him a bastard, but he feels that he is the one who has been unreasonably offensive.

In some sense, human suffering is the yarn of which the modern mystery novel is woven. Sleuthing no longer has much to do with footprints and railway timetables, and hasn’t since about 1933. Maybe it’s just me, but a steady diet of this kind of malaise seems neither realistic nor pleasurable. When the horror is leavened with flashes of youthful exuberance or outright humor, I enjoy the reading far more.

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3 Responses to The Delicate Aura of Mayhem

  1. Conrad Cook says:

    Yeah, you see the same thing in cop TV. Which I largely no longer watch, for these kinds of reasons.

    The rugged police detective must balance the demands of tracking down a sadistic serial killer with the demands of his wife, who makes the serial killer look nearly preferable: “Whaaat, you can’t make it to Little League because someone is mailing you human fingers AGAIN? I want a DIVORCE!”

    Some time in the 80s, I guess, genre literature got the idea that they’d stop doing pulp and Focus On Character. The result: cardboard cutout heros who gave you occasional glimpses of humanity were replaced with characters whose every line, every gesture, oozed Characterization.

    And generally the Characterization so oozed is just like the Characterization oozed by all the other characters who are just like them. I don’t know that this improved on cardboard.

    Also very nice 300 page novels in which things actually happened were replaced with 700 page monstrosities in which very little happens — but characters introspected a great deal about how they feel about the story’s nonevents.

    I don’t have much use for the new style, personally. Or maybe I just out-grew my novel addiction…


  2. midiguru says:

    Sigh. I wrote a long response without noticing that I wasn’t logged in as administrator, clicked Submit Comment, and the fucking WordPress interface deleted it because I didn’t enter my name and email. I’m not going to try to reconstruct it all. Briefly …

    My theory is that at some point in the 1940s, the murder mystery started to cross-breed with the soap opera. It was no longer enough to write about the crime. There are only so many ways to commit murder, and only so many ways to track down a murderer. The menage of recurring characters around the detective became a soap opera cast. Agatha Christie may have been the last novelist who didn’t do this.

    In addition to adding color and variety to the story, the series characters become fodder for plots. The detective’s friends are involved in a suspicious number of violent crimes, usually as victims. Again, this makes literary sense: When someone we know (from having read previous novels in the series) is a victim, we’re more emotionally involved than if it’s a stranger.

    I should probably write a long scholarly essay about this. But maybe I’ll write a mystery novel instead.

  3. Conrad Cook says:

    I support either of those options, but endorse the second!


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