Sleep No More is the second collection of short stories by the legendary crime author P. D. James, published posthumously in 2017. I loved the earlier volume The Mistletoe Murder and Other Tales (2016) and hoped Faber would bring out another in time for last Christmas. Guaranteed best-sellers in slim hardbacks with stylish covers, it’s good that they’ll bring new readers to discover James’s elegant prose. (The British cover looks gorgeous but the American version is nowhere near as attractive as the first volume).
This title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Subtitled Six Murderous Tales, there are two more than the first volume, though this time none featuring James’s serial detective Adam Dalgliesh. Though I’m not the greatest fan of short stories, much preferring the length and complexity of novels, these are some of the best I’ve read. Not a weak one among them, their standard is exceptionally high.
In addition to her writing, P. D. James had a long and varied career of public service. This included serving as a magistrate and working in the criminal justice section of the Home Office. In her memoir Time To Be In Earnest (1997), she mentions my fascination with criminal law. She explored the failings of the legal system in her Dalgliesh novel A Certain Justice, published the same year.
The stories here are linked by a theme of retribution and justice. Bad people may get their comeuppance but not through officialdom. We hear the dark thoughts of murderers – chilling in their ordinariness – and the testimony of unsuspected witnesses looking back many years. But does anyone really get away with murder? Killers, victims and bystanders are caught up in moral ambivalence and the ironies of fate.
Each story is like a masterclass in plotting, character and – as always with P. D. James – full of wonderfully evocative atmosphere. They’re also pleasingly varied. A classic Golden Age plot is set during a wartime Christmas, a black comedy reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected. Without the space – or need – for the conventional structure of a detective novel, they feel as though James was experimenting and having fun. Along with her acute psychological insight, there’s an air of wry humour throughout. An interesting sidelight on an author known for the bleak tone of her novels.
Written from the 1970s to the 90s, Sleep No More is a superb set of stories that linger in the mind. It’s sad that there’ll be no more from one of the greatest ever crime authors. Few writers could evoke a sense of place so well.