Monthly Archives: June 2011

CBR III Week 13: The Murder Room by PD James

Murder room

This was one of the books I read the last time I was down in Florida. Memories! I have to admit that I kinda miss the beach. One thing I don’t miss is the 11 hour drive with my best friend Molly. You know when you’re in the car with someone/somepet for too long and you start thinking things like “wow, you breathe SO much” or “screw you for sleeping right now” or “I want to murder you”?

Which is what The Murder Room is about! Yay, segue.

This is PD James’s 12th mystery featuring Adam Dalgliesh, and one thing I’ve noticed in my Extensive and Scholarly study of her novels is that she has a pretty strict formula she sticks to:

1-Introduce some interesting characters for like a hundred pages. There’s a lot of tension. Someone’s gonna get got!

2-MUUUUUUURDER. In this case, Neville Dupayne, museum trustee, heir, psychologist, and mistress to his female assistant (what is the word for a man-mistress?), dies in a fire.

3-Adam D arrives on the scene and begins his inquiries by talking to each suspect individually. The suspects are most commonly tied together by some sort of working relationship. In The Murder Room, they all work in the fictional Dupayne Museum, which is dedicated to English inter-war history. In James’s later books, the place of work tends to be an aging institution whose survival is threatened by one person (who gets got!). Here, the murder might have been committed by Neville’s siblings (brother and sister), who are his co-trustees, one of the museum employees or volunteers, the husband of the woman he was shtupping, etc. The complexities that develop in relationships even among casual acquaintances are put on display.

Are you so interested in this breakdown?

3-ANOTHER MUUUUUURDER. Adam D is maybe close to arriving at a conclusion—I personally never have any idea what that is. And then maybe there’s another murder, if PD’s feeling really sassy.

In The Murder Room, some girl who’s sort of only tangentially related to the plot gets murdered.

4-Adam D. has figured it out! Regrets, there are many. Thoughts about poetry (Adam is a poet on the side), etc.

Anyway, all this is to say that what’s interesting about PD James, and the reason I’ve decided to read all her books, is that she’s such a wonderful inventor of complex characters, and of realistic relationships, and those are the things that make these mysteries so compelling. It’s not who did it, so much as why. What circumstances, what frame of mind could lead someone to murder? And she’s a fantastic writer of place—there’s an attentiveness which to me seems a lot like love (of the English landscape and of the often troubling history that has marked that landscape).  In my opinion, anyway.

 

CBR III Week 12: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room

Another day, another book I listened to. This one was read by, apparently, Alvin the chipmunk. It was…special.

Room is about a little boy named Jack whose entire world consists of a small room he shares with his mother. How did they come to be there and blablabla? I mean we've all heard about this book, I think. His mother got kidnapped by a creepy weirdo named Old Nick, and he keeps them in a shed, like Fritzl, but less awful.

Donoghue’s Jack is so limited in his understanding of whatever is going on around him, as a result of both his  age and his circumstances, that it becomes possible for Donoghue to have him describe, for example, Old Nick’s visits to Room, and for the reader to come away with an interpretation of what is going on in that is totally different—and much more harrowing—than Jack’s. At the same time, that same naiveté gives a grim situation lightness, and allows for moments of loveliness and grace in what is actually a fairly dark story. Told from an adult point of view, the story might be too horrifying, or too sentimental, or too exploitative to succeed, but as told by Jack, the world is too new and too riveting for any of that. Rather than being a story about captivity, it becomes a story about dizzying freedom: about the first, primal bond Jack has with his mother—which, stretched out as it has been, is edged in something dark, desperate and pathological—and the painful, exhilarating process of becoming independent, of becoming human, as opposed to “a me-an-Ma”. Jack’s story is successful because all the time we sense how close he is to somehow being ruined by his circumstances, even when he can’t, and in this light his everyday experiences become miraculous.

That said, the ending gets a thumbs down, y'all. But I can't talk about it without ruining it.

CBR III Week 11: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major p

Major Pettigrew is a neat little satire set in (more or less) present-day England. It takes place in a small town called Edgecomb St. Mary, the name of which I managed to remember all by my lonesome—a miraculous feat of memory when you consider that I read this book before I got old and died and was resurrected into the body of some other woman. THAT is how long it has been.

The story is basically that retired Major Ernest P. falls in love with a widowed Pakistani shop keeper (Mrs. Ali) from his village who comforts him when his brother dies. There are complications (racism), a subplot involving some antique guns owned by Major Pettigrew and his brother, another subplot involving a Mughal-themed party at the golf club (racism!), and yet another subplot involving Mrs. Ali’s nephew acting in a MOST unappealing fashion. Also, Major P has a total jerkwad of a son. I don’t think I got all the subplots? Everything comes together—and comes right—in the end, as one expects from page 1. I mean, it’s a romantic comedy, really, except it’s about older people, and it’s genuine and charming in a way that belies that particular label.

Anyway, if the way this book is constructed sometimes feels too pat, we can apparently blame that on the fact that it was written over the course of Simonson’s MFA. Bad MFA! Bad! It doesn’t matter too much, because aside from, basically, a manual on how to write a Novel, she’s written a bunch of fantastic, warm characters that I was happy to spend a couple million hours with in my car. Oh-ho, yes, I listened to this.

Simonson is a gifted writer of that sort of cringey comedy that is Britain’s most important export nowadays, besides Dr. Who, although she’s not above throwing in some hijinks that are very much in the Wodehousian tradition. I like to mention Wodehouse in connection with every comic novel set in England because Wodehouse. Wodehouse Wodehouse Wodehouse.

Wodehouse.