Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

By Jerome H. Delamater; Ruth Prigozy | Go to book overview

13
“An Unsuitable Job” for Anyone:
The “Filthy Trade” in P. D. James

Marnie Jones

Barbara Barker

P. D. James was once asked if she thought her novels encourage murder. She must, by now, be used to the question. She replied: “The detective story is far more about the restoration of order out of disorder, far more about the application of human intelligence to a puzzle” (Lehman and Clifton 81). That may be true about the genre as a whole, but no British writer more insistently asks us to question the restoration of order than does P. D. James. Two months later, 60 Minutes, in a segment entitled “Murder She Writes,” could barely restrain the question, “What's a nice little old lady like you doing writing stories like these?” That unasked question seems to prompt her toward a more vigorous defense of murder mysteries than a close reading of her work would suggest. “I think detective fiction flourishes best in ages of pessimism rather than optimism, because it is a reassuring genre,” she has said. “Detective stories help reassure us in the belief that the universe, underneath it all, is rational.” Perhaps, but there is little comfort to be found in James's world, where even me police worry about the damage they inflict in the name of justice. Her novels disturb because she repeatedly calls attention to our own deep ambivalence toward the police who are authorized to invade our privacy.1

If An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) asserts mat detection is an equal opportunity profession, the body of P. D. James's work suggests it is not suitable for anyone.2 Since her earliest novels James has been conscious of the price paid for police work; what began as passing recognition on the part of the detective has become the central theme of her most recent work. In her second novel, A Mind to Murder (1963), Adam Dalgliesh, surveying the crowd at his publisher's sherry party, muses: “Presumably they wanted murderers caught however much they might argue about what should happen to them afterwards; but they displayed a typical ambivalence towards those who did the catching” (20). The violent crime of murder sets off a chain reaction of contamination,

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