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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Murder Most Downtonish
"I feel as if I've read no fiction for months," I told my mother yesterday. "Can you recommend a good detective story - where the detective isn't too tortured, alcoholic or nihilistic?" She suggested P. D. James's The Lighthouse, which I thought a good choice, having enjoyed some of the Dalglish mysteries on television back in the day, though I've never read the books. It's set on a small island in the Bristol Channel, too, and having written a book with that setting myself I naturally warm to it on that account.

I'm about 30 pages in so far, and while it's not badly written I've been surprised to find "miniscule", a woman called Sydney referred to as having "an ambivalent forename", and a few similar minor but irksome errors. The main problem, though, is that while we've spent a lot of time in the heads of various middle-class people, the working-class ones are only ever seen from the outside, and it's beginning to grate. Admittedly there's a way to go and this could all change, but I can't help but remember that P. D. James sat on the Tory benches in the House of Lords, just like Julian Fellowes, and this does have a bit of a Downton vibe to it.

Carping aside, though, it sent me to dig out one of my favourite passages from the The Making of the Goodies' Disaster Movie (1977), which includes a page from Graham Greene's supposed screenplay, At It Again...

137: Interior. Krafchik's Villa. Day.

A man enters from the patio through the half-open French window. It is BATTERSBY. He moves carefully across the cluttered living room, nervous, alert. BATTERSBY is a man of medium height (5'9" or 5'10") and of indeterminate age. He could be anything from 25 to 37. In fact he is 38, and meticulously careful of his appearance. His neatly cut hair is brushed in the city style, and it is even possible that the bronzed highlights in the distinguished grey are the result of skilful tinting. Despite the subtropical humidity his skin is smooth and dry. His eyes are a deep limpid brown, the lashes obviously professionally trimmed. He moves with a slight limp, made more obvious by the involuntary flinching of his knees as he catches sight of a print of Valpolicella's Madonna and Infant over the fireplace, while at the same time the defensive tightening of the three wrinkles at the corner of each eye pronounces his later rejection of the Faith. His clothes are smart, crisp, well-chosen, beautifully cut, and mauve. When he speaks, BATTERSBY's voice retains a hint of an Irish lilt, an accent assimilated long since in the days of his close association with the Jesuit Fathers who educated him. He looks round the room and clears his throat.


A shot rings out and BATTERSBY falls dead.

Enter DOBBS, an ordinary sort of bloke.

DOBBS: Coo-er! Well here's a rum go, and no mistake.

The Goodies were a bit hit and miss, but this was right on the money. Anyway, so far reading P. D. James is a bit like that.

In other news, would you like to hear the bells of Romsey Abbey? You would? Here you go, then.

Your accounting of irksome errors in the book is leading me to expect a reference to an allegory on the banks of the Nile.

As I've not read Graham Greene, what the description of BATTERSBY reminds me of is reading Bernard Shaw, who packs his plays with far more irrelevant detailed directions and description than ever gets into the dialogue. Shaw would not, however, be reduced to "an ordinary sort of bloke."

I think the main Greene element here is the wrestling with imperfectly lapsed Catholicism.

Yes, Shaw's stage directions read like the work of a novelist manqué (even more so if you throw in his Prefaces); though I'm not sure how far that was uniquely Shavian and how far the fashion of the age. It's not a period of drama I know well, but Barrie at least was equally prolix in his stage directions.

I tried James's _Original Sin_ but was horrified by the solution, which was seriously vile ammunition for

:D The Goodies' stage directions ring only too true! Dorothy Sayers' books are also prone to this - quivering sensitivity is found especially (to be fair, not exclusively) in the upper classes, with comic relief, forelock-tugging or surly badness three main options available to the lower.

I gave up on James. I like her dense descriptiveness, but her views on class are disagreeable.


I've never read any P D James, though have enjoyed dramatisations in the past. However your qualms about her book remind me of my problems with Josephine Tey who despite be being very readable in terms of the plotting and prose makes me so angry with her utterly ingrained belief that nobility and goodness are inherited traits and the lower classes just can't be trusted.

heh! Oh, I love that parody! Thank you.

I've borrowed most of P.D. James books from the library - Dalgliesh being a complex enough character to keep me reading despite James' appallingly bleak view of human society.

I'd recommend Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope mysteries as an antidote - with magnificent working class earth goddess detective (only slightly given to alcohol abuse).

Thank you. I've heard of Ann Cleeves but never read any - I shall put that to rights.

Thank you! *notes Cleeves*

Thank you! *notes Cleeves*

There was a bit of a rumpus in the Crime Writers' Association some years ago, when desperance responded to an interview with P.D. James on this subject: here's the story, which oddly doesn't quote what she actually said. and here's a piece with more quotations, including James's remark that "in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don't get moral choice, you don't get contrasts between good and evil..."

Seconding the recomendation of Ann Cleeves (disclaimer: she's also a friend), though I secretly like the Shetland books even better than the Vera Stanhope series. And, er, assuming you have read Peter Dickinson's crime fiction?

I had no idea there was all this history with James and class! Now I feel rather pleased with myself for picking up on it within 30 pages of my first experience reading her.


Also, I should have said, when recommending crime fiction, that Chaz Brenchley is rather good...