Friday, October 14, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

The 2016 Preface to this collection of stories invokes Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. James mentions that short story mysteries are challenging to write because the author must give their psychological studies an immediate point, without all the space that a novel presents, all in service to the surprise and satisfaction of the reader. Agatha Christie is explicitly mentioned in at least one story, but it is Sayers and Conan Doyle who I think are evoked most completely. This collection brings together four very short detective stories all centered on the Christmas season and, no matter when James actually wrote her preface, there can be no doubt that these are a substantial Christmas gift to her readers.

I listened to the Penguin Random House (Faber Audio) production of this book, and enjoyed them absolutely. The stories are not new: one was written in 1969, another in 1979, 1995, 1996. It may be possible to find the stories elsewhere, but I am going to recommend you listen to these. Altogether the reading is about 3 hours, and the time spent listening places you way back in time, out of your daily life and into the early 20th Century, recalling a time when the mystery greats were stalking the earth.

Born in 1920, James centers her first story, "The Mistletoe Murders", about the time she in real life married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor, in 1941. Her husband White developed a psychological illness during World War II, and James subsequently had to support the family which included two young daughters. She did not begin writing until the 1950s, but from the time of the war she worked in hospital administration for a London hospital board, a job she held until her husband died in the mid-1960’s, two years after her first novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, called Cover her Face, was published. James then took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. [info courtesy of Wikipedia].

There are two Dalgliesh stories in this collection, both deliciously demonstrating his unrivaled talent for observation and deduction, which prompts one character in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” to compare him to Ms. Marple. Dalgliesh was of course a man in a man’s world and was recognized as a great detective by his own colleagues and those of the local constables. It is reassuring for me to find in this story the understanding of the staff of a local CID is quite up to the standards of the Met, though they allow Dalgliesh to strut his stuff before they take the case in hand themselves, on Christmas Day.

Each of these stories have James’ special intelligence and quiet control about them. If I had to choose a favorite from among these, it might be the first story, “The Mistletoe Murders,” which reveals the abyss most creepily, the dark river flowing beneath the surface of our world.

This Penguin Random House CD set or audio download is a great Christmas treat for parents or anyone who appreciates stories told in the vein of those earlier great mystery story-tellers, Conan Doyle, Sayers, Christie, and Poe. The reading is done most ably by TV and film star Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, narrator of the complete series of Dalgliesh novels. Publication date is set for October 25, 2016. Of course the set will be available in e-reader and paper formats from Knopf as well. Don’t miss these little gems.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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