Two years after the death of P.D. James, I never expected to read more of her memorable prose for the first time. It was a welcome surprise to see her name in that familiar font on a newly released volume of four short stories. This took me back to those decades when a new P.D. James novel was a great thrill to be anticipated then savoured. It feels poignant and nostalgic to have this collection.
As mentioned last time, I don’t read as many short stories as I probably should. Even old favourites such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and John Buchan, I rarely find time to re-visit. Not sure I even knew P.D. James had published short stories. But I’m glad I found these as they’re some of the best I’ve read. Each is a small gem with all the strengths that made her novels compelling.
Since P.D. James’s first novel Cover Her Face was published in 1963, she set a formidably high standard in characterisation, plot and setting; doing much to make the crime novel literary and lessening the snobbish stigma of genre fiction. Her novels have the strong psychological insight and complex characters which modern readers expect while retaining much-loved aspects of the Golden Age.
James updated the classic trope of an enclosed setting with a tight circle of suspects – the isolated family country house became a bleak institution and its staff. The locale would be central London as often as her much-loved rural East Anglia. Her sense of place is superb with elegant, haunting descriptions that immerse you vividly in the characters’ world.
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories has the bonus of a foreword by Val McDermid – who always does these well – and a preface by P.D. James, originally published in 2001.
There is a satisfying art in containing within a few thousand words all those elements of plot, setting, characterisation and surprise which go to provide a good crime story.
These stories certainly satisfied her criteria with strong plots, believable characters and wonderful atmosphere. As for surprise, the endings are extremely clever. I didn’t see them coming and as a detective fiction fan, that’s the best bonus of all. I really admire any writer who can pull off an unexpected murderer and ending in a short story, given the limitations of space and suspects.
The four stories were originally published in 1969, ’79, ’95 and ’96. Two of them are Christmas tales, written for newspapers. Two feature Adam Dalgliesh, in one of which, it’s interesting to glimpse him as a young sergeant. (We think it’s hard to imagine Commander Dalgliesh was ever in uniform, on the beat or doing finger-tip searches and bagging-up fag-ends.)
My favourite story is A Very Commonplace Murder, for its clever plot and evocative, seedy setting.
For anyone who hasn’t read P.D. James, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a great way to start. Highly recommended.