P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

March 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

There is a sense in which I can add nothing to this portrait of two exemplars of excellence in the writing of crime fiction. Nevertheless, I feel the need to try, especially after recently revisiting their works.

  P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of 94. This slender volume was published just last year. One does not ordinarily think of James in regard to short stories; her art was most expressive in the long form of the novel. There she had scope for her examination of the moral struggles of the men and women who were her subjects. The stories that comprise this anthology are not police procedurals; rather, they’re tales of seemingly ordinary people acting under extreme and unanticipated duress. And throughout, we are treated to Baroness James’s exquisite prose, like this passage from “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards:”

It was to be another warm day, and over the serried rows of headstones lay a thin haze pierced by the occasional obelisk and by the wing tips of marble angels whose disembodied heads seemed to be floating on particles of shimmering light. And as she watched motionless in an absorbed enchantment, the mist began to rise and the whole cemetery was revealed to her, a miracle of stone and marble, bright grass and summer-laden trees, flower-bedecked  graves and intersecting paths stretching as far as the eye could see. In the distance she could just make out the spire of a Victorian chapel, gleaming like  the spire of some magical castle in a long-forgotten fairy tale.

I enjoyed all of these tales, but I think my favorite was the first, the improbably named but cunningly plotted “The Yo-Yo.” Three of these six stories were initially published in a series of anthologies  called Winter’s Crimes. I remember these books regularly entering the library’s collection when I first went to work there in 1982. Here’s the background on those volumes, from the Internet Book List:

The Winter’s Crimes anthology series was launched in 1969 by the London publishing house, Macmillan, at first under the auspices of George Hardinge. For several years the series was edited some years by Hardinge and in other years by another Macmillan editor, Hilary Watson, except for Winter’s Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. In 1983, Hilary Watson married her fellow Macmillan editor and literary agent James Hale, and continued the series under her pleasantly alliterative married name, Hilary Hale. With the 23rd volume in 1991, editorship passed to Maria Rejt, who finished out the series with Winter’s Crimes 24.

George Hardinge edited a 2-volume “Best of” anthology from the first 17 volumes (the ISBN for the 2-volume set is 033342106X) and Maxim Jakubowski selected Murders for the Fireside from the 24-volume series, following it with More Murders for the Fireside, which also contains stories from anthologies not in the series.

(Someone who, like me, loves graceful phrasing must have come up with “pleasantly alliterative.”)

At the time, I ignored these books. I was just discovering the joys of crime fiction and was pretty exclusively immersed in the genre’s long form. Little did I realize the gems I was cavalierly overlooking!

In 1992 an anthology came out entitled Murders for the Fireside: The Best of Winter’s Crimes. The contributors number among my favorite mystery writers: Eric Ambler, Robert Barnard, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, and others. At present, the library does not own Murders for the Fireside. (I’ve ordered a used copy from Amazon.)

I’ve rather strayed from the P.D. James book, and I have only one thing to add. The cumulative effect of reading these stories one after the other was the creation of a mood that is hard to describe, but I would say was characterized by a feeling of unease and apprehension bordering on dread. This was mixed with a strong desire to understand the human impulses at work in the story by going relentlessly forward. I was trying to think whose work this strange phenomenon reminded me of, and then I realized: It reminded me of Ruth Rendell.

I just finished revisiting Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever via audiobook, narrated by Nigel Anthony. Every once in a while I get in the mood to revisit one of her novels in this way. Usually, with my penchant for procedurals, it’s a Wexford novel, as this one is.

    Shake Hands Forever, published in 1975, is ninth in this series. At the beginning, I was somewhat dismayed by the characters. They seemed stereotypical, especially the women. First we meet the sour, mulish and domineering  mother of the protagonist, Robert Hathall. Then we meet his bitter and resentful ex-wife, who is much preferred by the mother to the new young wife.

We also meet Hathall’s near neighbor, a single fortyish person named Nancy Lake. She’s a very attractive woman, or so she strikes Wexford, who is immediately and powerfully drawn to her. This is a somewhat startling development, or at least it was for me; Reg Wexford is one of the most uxorious men I’ve encountered in crime fiction. (Another would be Commissario Guido Brunetti, the splendid creation of Donna Leon.) But the annoying aspect of this is that Nancy Lake is deliberating cranking up the charm for Wexford’s benefit – dare I say, she’s actually vamping him. It comes across as a performance from a much earlier era. In fact, Rendell waxes quite lyrical when describing Nancy’s effect:

She was of the season in which they were, a harvest-time woman, who brought to mind grape festivals and ripened fruit and long warm nights.

Nancy Lake may have information relevant to the Hathall investigation. Nevertheless:

He had to make an effort of will to keep questioning her in this impersonal way, for she exercised a spell, the magical combination of feminine niceness  and strong sexuality.

Grape festivals? Really?

Just as Wexford’s discomfort reaches its climax – “He remembered that he was not only a policeman but a husband who must be mindful of his marriage vows.” –  this situation quickly moves offstage. It is fortunate for Wexford, I would say, as well as for the (twenty-first century) reader.

As the plot unfolds, Hathall, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, and Wexford’s nephew Howard Fortune, of the London CID, begin to take center stage in what is essentially a variant of that old saw, the cat and mouse game. There’s a very cunning plot afoot, and try as he might, Wexford can’t find  the key to unlock it. Howard is similarly baffled.

A passage in the classic mystery Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley describes the effect of a moment of  sudden realization that occurs in the course of an investigation:

Swiftly and spontaneously, when chance or effort puts one in possession of the key-fact in any system of baffling circumstances, one’s ideas seem to rush to group themselves anew in relation to that fact, so that they are suddenly rearranged almost before one has consciously grasped the significance of the key-fact itself.

Finally, after a long and frustrating slog, the ‘key-fact’ in this stubborn case hits Wexford like a thunderbolt. Trust me, it’s a moment worth waiting for.

A word about this novel’s title. The phrase “Shake hands forever” comes from a poem called “The Parting” by Micheal Drayton (1563-1631). Here it is:

INCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
–Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

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