Shroud for a Nightingale

By P.D. James


When I look at my most-used tags on this blog, one in particular stands out: ‘England’. I’ve tagged a dozen posts ‘England’ – the only other tags that common are all genre tags: ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Mystery’, stuff like that. ‘England’ is the most common tag which is not a major literary genre.

Which makes sense, when you think about it: ‘England’ is almost a literary genre in its own right. For several hundred years, English writers have been producing literature whose Englishness was central to the point and purpose of the work. Literature where the tone, culture, and context all are so deeply English that it is almost impossible to imagine the work in another context.

There are many novels whose essential Englishness is vital to the work: anything by Trollope, Waugh, Dickens, or Austen, for example. It’s not all dead authors, either: even some modern English novels are grounded, inescapably, in this sense of place: try bleaching the Englishness out of, say, Harry Potter, and see where it leaves you.

This tends to inculcate in lovers of English literature a sort of nostalgia for a literary England that (probably?) doesn’t exist. A highly local sort of England: quaint but complex, peaceful but also roiling with social and class tensions. A nation of country-sides and towns (none of which are more than an hour’s drive to London) full of vicars and hedgerows, where 50% of the populous are landed gentry and where there are a lot of murders.

As you may know, I have been reading a lot of P.D. James lately. Her spare prose and beautifully-plotted murders make for perfect fall reading, and I’ve been working my way through her Adam Dalgliesh series. I haven’t written about every single one, because they are formulaic (but in the best way), but her fourth, ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’, got me thinking about the Englishness of novels.

That’s probably because ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ is saturated with English-feeling. To an American, James’ novels play right into our ignorant, Miss Marple-y ideas of what England was. ‘Shroud For A Nightingale’, for example, is set in a nursing school. All the students are (of course) women. They wear uniforms and have elaborate hot-beverage routines before their bedtimes (all the easier to murder them!), they fall in love with doctors and they have private and stoically-unacknowledged griefs.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me share a few representative passages with you:

“The quickest way to the private wing was through the out-patients’ hall. The department was already buzzing with activity. The circles of comfortable chairs, carefully disposed to give an illusion of informality and relaxed comfort, were filling quickly. Volunteers from the ladies’ committee of the League of Friends were already presiding at the steaming urn, serving tea to those regular patients who preferred to attend an hour before their appointments for the pleasure of sitting in the warmth, reading the magazines and chatting to their fellow habitués.” (p. 90)


P.D. James

“Fifteen minutes later, Masterson’s car passed the flat where Miss Beale and Miss Burrows, cosily dressing-gowned, were sipping their late night cocoa before the dying fire. They heard it as one brief crescendo in the intermittent flow of traffic, and broke off their chatter to speculate with desultory interest on what brought people out in the small hours of the morning. It was certainly unusual for them to be still up at this hour, but tomorrow was Saturday and they could indulge their fondness for late-night conversation in the comforting knowledge that they could lie in next morning.” (p. 304)

The atmosphere of this novel (of almost all of these novels) is imbued with a sense of profound orderliness. A sense that society has been arranged in a stable fashion, with predictable rules and predictable consequences for breaking those rules. I have a sort of pet theory that it is exactly this impression of English orderliness that has allowed the murder mystery sub-genre to thrive so well within it. Attention can be lavished on each individual murder because, otherwise, things hum along so smoothly. And the murders themselves are always coherent, always intimate and motivated. Murder within order is interesting; murder amid chaos is scary.

I suppose that this fondness might read as patronizing to actual English people – I can understand that, although I do not see that it is all that different than the fondness of Europeans for stories of the Wild West. And I would point out that all of the authors that I have named here are British. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the smallness, the old-fashioned twee-ness of the setting, isn’t part of what audiences are responding to. To romantic notions of aristocracy, to a longing for a more orderly society. And, of course, for the intimate dramas and creative local murders that might plague such an imagined society. It’s not accurate, of course, but it is lovely.

Why am I even talking about this? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, I don’t have a great reason. But, as I chew my way happily through the James canon, I am struck over and over again how grounded these novels are in a sense of place. And, also, how familiar that place (which is fictional) feels to me, an American born in the 1980s.

English literature, writ large, has conveyed so coherent a vision of itself that I recognize it from book to book, author to author. I feel at home in it, despite its imaginary quality and my own lack of Englishness. That really is a triumph for a national literature: to make your shared vision of a country (and time) so consistent, so vivid, that it becomes an imaginative home for people all over the world. To build a world so persuasive that it comes to define whole genres. To build a world so enduring that it is recognizable from Dickens to J.K. Rowling.

The tags of this blog accurately reflect my own reader’s mind: I love English literature. Whole eras of my reading life have been defined by English literature; English authors would dominate any list of my favorite writers. This is not a supremacist point of view, but a sentimental one: I am not and would not argue that English literature is better than other national literatures. But it is very dear to me.

Cover Her Face

By P.D. James


We do not usually expect perfection in art. There’s good reason for this: in art, as in life, perfection is rare, perhaps impossible. It’s not a reasonable standard by which to judge something, be it a person or a work of art.

But, if there are not perfect works of art, might there be perfect genres? Might there not be artistic species which, honed over decades in the hands of the capable, achieve a perfection of form? Or, if perfection offends you as a concept, might we not think about certain kinds of art as apotheosized? Of having reached a sort of ideal consensus, a set of norms and prescriptions which, when followed, produce something familiar and yet also sublime?

As an example, consider the limerick. In a limerick, a specific, metered rhyme scheme is used to express material which is, canonically, humorous and crude. Both parts – the meter and the content – are requirements of the form. Both are crucial: limericks are so funny because the constraints imposed by the rhyme and meter force you, the listener, to anticipate the humor (or the filth). The limerick is sort of a perfect kind of art: known, efficient, un-improvable.

I’d like to argue that the British murder mystery is another perfect form of art, a genre whose conventions and standards have been honed to a state which cannot be meaningfully improved. The British murder mystery is a fully actualized art form.

This line of thinking has been prompted by the fact that I just read ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James. Now, despite being a fan of the murder mystery, I have never actually read P.D. James before – I wasn’t avoiding it, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I wanted to start at the beginning. Like many of her ilk, James has a favored creation, a detective who stars in most of her books. In James’ case, it is Adam Dalgliesh, a talk, dark, and handsome poet-detective. I’m a little anal about book order, so I wanted to start with the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, which is ‘Cover Her Face’, published in 1962.

‘Cover Her Face’ is a lovely little murder mystery. The Maxie family, of Martingale Manor in Essex, are planning their annual church fête (an aside: nothing good ever comes of a church fête in a murder mystery, and it is a testament to the success of the genre that the phrase “church fête” sends a chill down the spine of every American reader, despite the fact that none of us have ever encountered one in real life). The Maxie household has been under some recent strain: their patriarch is terminally ill, and is being cared for at Martingale by his wife, Eleanor Maxie. To help with his care, the family has recently brought on new help: the beautiful Sally Jupp, an unwed mother from the local womens’ refuge. When, on the night of the fête, Sally Jupp announces that she has been proposed to by Stephen Maxie, the estate’s heir, everyone is horrified. When she is found strangled the next morning, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard begins to wonder whether the murderer might have been a member of the household.

What should be clear from my description is that ‘Cover Her Face’ is an entirely doctrinaire murder mystery. No Agatha Christie novel could have been truer to the form; in fact, but for a more permissive attitude toward sexual intercourse, ‘Cover Her Face’ might easily have been written by Christie herself.

And I hope it is obvious from my preamble that I do not mean ‘doctrinaire’ as an insult. On the contrary, the reason that I am arguing for the perfection of the murder mystery as a form is because of how satisfying a totally doctrinaire murder novel can be.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, that something so formulaic could be so enjoyable to read, but it is not uncommon when you think about it. Many forms are like this: romantic comedies, horror movies, police procedurals. The predictability of these forms is part of what makes them enjoyable. As a consumer, you inhabit a familiar world, where the signals are transparent to you. That comfort frees your attention to focus on the details. It makes the experience of these genres psychically cozy: familiar and yet new at the same time.

P.D. James

Murder mysteries have a very well-developed set of norms and signals. We know that the murderer is never (never!) a wandering vagrant – it will always be a known entity, a member of the household (or one of their guests). Despite the fact that the murder will occur in a genteel setting, among church-going villagers or landed gentry, motives will abound, and there will be a surprisingly large number of plausible murderers. There will be some situational complexities that make reconstructing the actual crime difficult: the crime will have intersected with other, more minor sins. Multiple suspects will lie (in fact, most of them will be lying about something or other). Our detective, patient and opaque, will carefully unwrap it all, and will reveal the full complexity of the situation in a denouement which will somehow involve the entire cast of characters, who will be assembled in the drawing room.

As is probably clear, I’m fond of this genre, and, in my fondness, I object to the characterizing of these books as “guilty pleasures” or beach reading or whatever. Just because something is sold in airport bookstores doesn’t make it bad, and I see real literary achievement in the murder mystery. The fact that ‘Cover Her Face’ is so conventional and yet so good speaks to the strength of the genre.

And, yes, there is a murder aspect to its success: murder is fun to read about. But I believe that there is more to the popularity of the murder mystery than audience ghoulishness. I think that this is a perfectly balanced form: that it provides novelty and familiarity in perfect proportion. Any more predictable, and they would be boring; any less, and they wouldn’t be reliable. The murder mystery walks the fine line between these two outcomes, and it has been walking it successfully for generations.

This form, these norms, are extraordinarily robust. They have been replicated again and again by different people, in different times, in many different countries. They have spawned and informed other genres. In Darwinian terms, the British murder mystery must be considered one of the most successful forms in human literary history, and I suspect that I will be reading them with pleasure until I die.