Book 1: A Certain Justice By P.D. James

November 2, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Review) (, , )

P.D. James is along with Ruth Rendell a Grand Dame of English mystery writing. Her reputation as a master of suspense and a writer of considerable skill is on the basis of this well deserved. I have read two other James’ an earlier Daglish novel and Children of Men which I strongly recommend to all. A Certain Justice centres around the murder of QC Venetia Aldridge. She is a cold, distant and ruthlessly ambitious woman. She has few, if any friends and a troubled relationship with her daughter. All of which makes her sound like a cliché but fortunately the quality of James’ writing elevates her from this. The key to this novel is the elegance of James’ writing weaving plot and character elegantly and never resorting to cliché.

The main character is nominally at least Detective Adam Daglish. He has appeared in a number of her books and is a respected poet as well as Detective. He is a man of some refinement and diplomacy who head is own special unit of Scotland Yard who specifically work on cases that are potentially controversial or require particular delicacy. It says a considerable amount about James’ as a writer that she does not introduce them to us until more than a third of the way through the book.  She is more interested in establishing the other characters, our victim and the suspects, thus allowing us to care about the outcome of Daglish’s work then perhaps we would otherwise. It takes a great deal of confidence to wait that long in a classical detective novel to introduce the detective in question. You have a sense that the characters are real people fully formed. For even the most minor of witnesses we are given some trait or quirk that makes them human. There are no convenient cyphers here, people do not act in service to the plot each acts in accordance to their character, how you would expect but without being predictable.  They are after all people who have found themselves connected to a murder and react to this in interesting and disparate ways.

The sense of place that James creates is potent. She so beautifully evokes London that I can smell and hear the streets that she is writing about. It is particularly the areas round the river and the courts of law.  It is hard to say if someone who had not been there would feel this quite so definitively but I am sure that it would be a satisfying read either way. Also especially enjoyable are the adroit observations that James slides in that that sum up some small but telling aspect of a character or that reflects a wider truth about the English character and the society it perpetuates. The sense of era is far looser there is no real way of telling which of the post war years this is set in but this is of no detriment to the book.

I will be reading more of James as part of this read which is probably as good a indication of her quality as anything. She writes engaging stories with characters that follow you after you’ve put down the book and started another.

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