P.D. James, one of the greatest of English mystery writers, died in 2014 at the age of 94, but she and her work live on. “Sleep No More” offers six previously uncollected, quite wonderful “murderous tales” that will delight her longtime fans and can be a fine introduction to her work for others.
Success did not come easily for James. Her mother suffered from mental illness, her father didn’t believe in higher education for girls and Phyllis Dorothy left school at 16 and went to work. She married a doctor but when he came back from service in World War II, he, too, had mental issues and she became the sole provider for herself and two daughters. She believed she was meant to write, but because of the demands of work and motherhood, she was past 40 when her first novel was published. Not until James was in her 50s did her mounting success make it possible for her to write full time. In 1991, she became Baroness James of Holland Park. By then, to readers, she was the Queen of Crime.
James is best known for 14 novels that feature the intrepid detective Adam Dalgliesh, but her short stories are excellent as well; she clearly had fun writing them. James was never much interested in ax-murderers or serial killers; she preferred to examine respectable citizens who turn to crime. The stories collected here are variously surprising, sardonic and darkly humorous, and are always intelligent and beautifully written. As much as any crime writer I know, James transcends genre and should be viewed simply as a writer of exceptional literary skill.
Her plots are always inventive. In a story called “The Yo-Yo” (there’s a reason), a retired judge recalls how, at age 13, he witnessed a murder and lied to police to protect the guilty party. Children, in these stories, are rarely to be trusted.
“The Murder of Santa Claus” is set in an English manor house at Christmas of 1939. A boy of 16 is spending the holiday with his wealthy, rather nasty uncle. Other guests include the uncle’s stepson, soon to be a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and the uncle’s hard-drinking mistress. Someone sends the uncle a Christmas poem that urges him to “Go to bed and sleep no more.” Sure enough, that night he is murdered in his bed. It’s a complex story, in the murder-in-the-manor-house tradition, that recalls Agatha Christie at her best.
In “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards,” we meet a girl whose mother died when she was born and whose father and grandmother die when she’s 10. She’s sent to London to live with an aunt and uncle; her new bedroom overlooks a graveyard that becomes central to her life. She finds it “luminous and mysterious in the early morning light . . . a miracle of stone and marble.” Exploring it, she feels “an emotion so rare that it stole through her thin body like a pain.” It’s “a place of delight and mystery, her refuge and her solace.”
The story becomes an unsettling prose poem about the girl’s passion for the graveyard. Then she grows up and takes a train back to the village of her birth, to find out where her father is buried. Only then do we learn the chilling reason for her obsession with graveyards.
James is endlessly quotable. A policeman: “The young seldom lie convincingly. They haven’t had time to practice like the rest of us.” Marriage “is both the most public and the most secret of institutions, its miseries as irritatingly insistent as a hacking cough, its private malaise less easily diagnosed.”
I’ve read a good many short stories over the years. Most are forgettable, but some become favorites to be returned to, such as J.D. Salinger’s “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” One or two of the stories in “Sleep No More” are candidates for that list. Two involve murders at Christmas, but don’t let that trouble you. This collection would make an excellent holiday gift for a literate friend, even though the author’s message has precious little to do with peace on earth or goodwill toward men.
Patrick Anderson writes regularly about thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By P.D. James
Knopf. 208 pp. $21