Essays

How P.D. James and Detective Fiction Healed My Broken Heart

By posted at 6:00 am on February 28, 2017 4

My beloved father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, my family and I found ourselves devastated. Adding to the shock of our loss was the guilt-ridden fact that my mother had not been there with my father during his final days to potentially catch the signs of his rapidly declining heart — she’d been with me, helping to manage my three young children while my husband was on a business trip.

Afterwards, the balanced weights of grief and regret settled on my shoulders, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so early in his life, at the age of 59 and only the beginning of his grandfatherhood, and my shame at the role my own selfishness played. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like playacting, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. To state perhaps the obvious, I’d never known life without my father.

covercoverWords have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, clinically speaking, is exactly what grief does to our cognitions). A fog seeped into my neural connections, and consequently my interactions with the world became murky and indistinct. Unable to rely upon my own narrative, I sought out the stories of others who’d been submerged by grief, only to eventually surface for air and write about it.  By a few months in, I’d completed what seems to have become required reading for the recently bereaved, gobbling up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story in hungry waves of reading at night when I couldn’t sleep. But, despite the compassion and empathy offered by these authors, I remained adrift as a woman, a daughter, and a reader. I wanted someone to tell me how to do it; how to live life without my father as an anchor. To my own surprise, I would not find my resilience in memoir, but in a fictional detective.

coverI discovered P.D. James at my local library, her series of mysteries impressively commanding an entire shelf all for themselves. I had planned to search the library’s database, quite literally, for “Widow Stories.” Despite the fact that I was not a widow, these were the primary books that seemed available to me as I grieved. It was as I wandered the aisles looking for an open kiosk to conduct my search that I noticed James’s work. I’d never read detective fiction before — it being a genre I had often (although I’m ashamed to admit it now) maligned as kitschy or formulaic. Despite this bias, I skeptically selected The Lighthouse from the shelf of offerings, as much out of desperation as curiosity.

I’ve always been an evening reader, and this pattern was set even more strictly during the months after my father’s death. The waning hours of winter daylight were when my anxious bereavement became the most acute, but as I pored through The Lighthouse over the next several nights, Commander Adam Dalgliesh’s controlled approach to the passions of life became a beacon to me. I found comfort in his cool-headedness as he faced the greatest cruelties human connection could muster. Here was a character who clearly felt deeply, penning acclaimed poetry in his spare time, but who also managed to subvert his ardency into a more functional rationality. Dalgliesh became a model for me of how to manage the pain of life’s losses without losing myself.

In The Lighthouse, one of the reader’s first encounters with Dalgliesh, and subsequently my introduction to the detective himself, finds the policeman-poet examining the body of a strangulation victim. P.D. James offers the reader a glimpse behind the detective’s eyes as she details the assessments Dalgliesh makes of the body and the crime scene. The victim’s height and physical features are precisely noted. His clothing is assessed with an intense scrutiny and the furniture in the room examined for clues to the inner workings of the victim. The entire scene is rational, logical, and emotionally tepid. And then, James offers a peek at the vibrant pulse below Dalgliesh’s detached demeanor:

The enclosing sheet seemed to have softened, defining rather than obliterating the sharp point of the nose and the bones of the quiescent arms. And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him as it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.

When I first read that passage, I was physically struck by the brutal truth of Dalgliesh’s observation. James’s words conjured the painful memory of returning home from the hospital to find the food my father had filled the refrigerator with just a day or so before his death. Milk, potato salad, his favorite cheese packaged from the deli, a few slices taken out. It was a chocolate cake with white frosting, one slice missing, that made me stifle a primal howl that night. The cake sat unassumingly on the middle shelf, but all I could picture was my father cutting himself a piece to enjoy as he sat alone in the house, waiting for his wife to come home. My mother and I promptly cleared out the fridge, both of us too ravaged by grief and guilt to care about the waste. James, through Dalgliesh, helped me to acknowledge, and even accept, that rawness would now lurk underneath the normalcy of life.

Following those observations of Dalgliesh’s in The Lighthouse, the reader sees him immediately shift back into a state of practiced analysis and get on with his job of solving the murder. It is made clear to the reader that Dalgliesh feels a great deal — he simply refuses to allow those feelings to inhibit his capacity to do his duty. If ever there was a lesson for the recently bereaved, I felt that was it: You can feel everything, but life must move forward. You are needed.

covercoverI won’t argue with those who say Dalgliesh represents a character who manages life by intellectualizing the emotional and, consequently, repressing actual feeling. I fully agree with that interpretation. When I discovered James and Dalgliesh, my emotional life was threatening to swallow me whole. Too anxious to sleep, my mental faculties drained from the ticker-tape thoughts of “Why didn’t I just hire a babysitter?” and “Why didn’t we make him go to the doctor?”, and my maternal routine involving a daily dose of chastising my children for what I perceived as their easy recuperation from their own loss of their grandfather, I had lost my balance. Reading The Lighthouse, followed by The Murder Room and A Certain Justice, Dalgliesh’s compartmentalized reactions to murder and treachery were the balm I so desperately needed.

coverI want to emphasize that the comfort I derived from James’s writing was not due to any “coziness” embedded in her mysteries. As noted in Val McDermid’s foreword to James’s recent short story collection published posthumously, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, “she was anything but cosy…She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head-on.” Rather, it was James’s frank handling of the brutalities of life that spoke to me. Losing my father was a childhood terror made real, but much like Dalgliesh, I did not have to succumb to these atavistic truths.

In The Murder Room, James describes Dalgliesh’s encounter with a victim burned alive in his own car:

Through the half-closed door he could see the ulna, and a few burnt fragments of cloth adhered to a thread of muscle. All that could burn on the head had been destroyed and the fire had extended to just above the knees. The charred face, the features obliterated, was turned towards him and the whole head, black as a spent match, looked unnaturally small. The mouth gaped in a grimace, seeming to mock the head’s grotesquerie. Only the teeth, gleaming white against the charred flesh, and a small patch of cracked skull proclaimed the corpse’s humanity.

She offers no screens for the reader. This death was full of horror and malice. In all of James’s murder mysteries, the brutal facts of death are on full display for the reader.

It is this transparency, I believe, that put Dalgliesh’s emotional balance into stark relief for me. A detective who had seen the worst in humanity, and yet kept his own in the process. Towards the end of The Murder Room, the murderer safely imprisoned and justice achieved in the only way possible for the victims, Dalgliesh reflects:

He felt both sad and exhausted but the emotion was not strange to him; this was often what he felt at the end of a case. He thought of the lives which his life had so briefly touched, of the secrets he had learned, the lies and the truths, the horror and the pain. Those lives so intimately touched would go on, as would his. Walking back… he turned his mind to the weekend ahead and was filled with a precarious joy.

If Adam Dalgliesh could encounter the worst of mankind and yet still perceive joy in life, I began to believe that I could figure out a way to feel joy again without my father.

covercovercoverOver the next year, I read James’s entire catalogue, which in its breadth covers detective fiction (the Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray series), science fiction (Children of Men), nonfiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), and her own memoir (Time to Be in Earnest). As I learned more about James herself, her personal story also became a model of how to restart my life without a father. James lost her husband at an early age after his struggles with mental illness. She then proceeded to raise her two daughters on her own while working full time as a civil servant and writing on the weekends. Knowing this now, I look back on my initial trip to the library with a sense of mild bemusement–although I hadn’t known it then, I’d discovered in the library that day another widow and her wide world of stories that would eventually see me out of my grief.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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4 Responses to “How P.D. James and Detective Fiction Healed My Broken Heart”

  1. Mary Lawson
    at 9:20 pm on February 28, 2017

    Mystery novels became my sole solace after the sudden diving-site death of my older brother, who had been in close touch with me almost every day of his adult life, though I live in Florida and he was on Long Island. I found that the only way my mind wouldn’t return to my loss was when I was caught up in a mystery novel. Desperate for distraction, I read indiscriminately and voraciously, even ignoring the fact that some of those books ordinarily were mysteries far too “cozy” for me, a retired English professor. My gold standard solace was P.D. James, and I reread her works, retained in my personal library (I recycle other mysteries, but not hers). I’d had the luck to hear her read in person from Original Sin in a Waterstone book store in London, in 1996. My treasured signed copy is near me now. I’m also a sketch artist, and while she signed the book, she declined signing my sketch! I must say I was inspired to write this evening because your personal story about how James helped you touched my memories of loving to read James, and of detective/mystery fiction as balm and solace.

  2. Sarah K. Stephens
    at 9:45 am on March 1, 2017

    Hi Mary–Thank you so much for sharing your story and I’m so sorry for your loss of your brother. I’m quite jealous of your opportunity to have met P.D. James and hear her read. I can only imagine that she was as wonderful and poised in person as she is on the page. Although she lived a long and prolific life as as writer, I still cannot help wishing that she were still with us and that readers had many future P.D. James mysteries to look forward to in the future. All the best, Sarah

  3. Sarah Stockton
    at 5:07 pm on March 4, 2017

    Thank you for this essay, Sarah. PD James’ detective novels have gotten me through many grief-filled and anxious times. My second choice would be the works of Ruth Rendall- in particular, her Inspector Wexford series. I’m an English-major trained reader, but I return again and again to mysteries of all kinds. I experience a sense of walking through tragedy and inhumanity with the author firmly in control, a finely crafted narrative as ballast against chaos. Ultimately, I know that any neat order or solutions to grief, or evil, if you will, are an illusion, but I often crave the assurance a confident detective offers, nevertheless.

  4. Sarah K. Stephens
    at 11:46 am on March 7, 2017

    Hi Sarah–thank you for your note and for your recommendation of Ruth Rendall. She’s been on my to-be-read list for far too long and I need to move her into my reading stack. Especially now that P.D. James has passed away, I’m always on the prowl for more expertly crafted detective fiction. I recently discovered Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, which are exceptional as well. I love your description of how well-written mysteries serve as “ballast against chaos.” Art heals in many forms, doesn’t it? Wishing you well, Sarah

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