I know she led a long, rich and successful life, but how I miss P. D. James! Despite my long-standing aversion to the short story genre, I found James’ collection Sleep No More — Six Murderous Tales to be absolutely wonderful. These stories, which were published between 1973 and 2006, diverge from James’s usual sensitive, thoughtful mysteries starring Adam Dalgliesh. Unlike a full length mystery novel, these stories are written from the perspective of the actors rather than the detective. They are characterized by seemingly normal people going rogue and being astonishingly brutal about getting what they want. There is no agonizing. Some are written in the first person, which makes the amoral quality of them even more jarring. The plots are clever and are the main point of these tales. Personality is far less in the forefront than in a typical James novel. It is as if James came up with six interesting schemes for how murders were devised and committed and then simply wrote them down without belaboring how a detective might discover who did them. Since this is P. D. James, there is far more to it. She swiftly and effectively sketches compelling characters and settings and then she brutally presents the murder. These are well worth reading.
These stories also suggest that one way to write a mystery would be to start with scaffolding of a well thought out, clever pot and only then write the novel around it. I wonder if James did that. Anyway, these are great stories!
If you like English murder mysteries, you need to know about Cyril Hare. Hare was a London barrister who spent much of his long legal career in a chambers known for handling high profile criminal cases. Throughout his long legal career, which culminated in a judgeship, Hare also wrote murder mysteries. In Death Among Friends, a short story compilation, Hare proves the point that it never hurts to look at events from a completely different and somewhat skewed angle.
Hare’s murder mysteries, many of them written in the years between the wars, frequently turn on some arcane legal point. In Death Among Friends, Hare offers both short and longish detective stories where the precise reason for a murder is often as obscure as the manner in which the murder is accomplished. Greed is the overwhelming motive in most of these stories, and of course by itself that is not so unusual. What makes these stories so interesting and fun to dissect, however, is the care and imagination Hare employs to develop and justify the basis and manifestation of his characters’ greed and expectations.
Hare’s legal bent is highly entertaining for lawyers, but these stories and his longer books engage anyone hooked on unexpected and clever plot lines. Hare doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, except to the extent that he creates some very selfish, single-minded people. I do prefer novel-length murder mysteries and highly recommend Cyril Hare’s longer books. Even if they are out of print, they can generally be found as used books on line or in your favorite used book store. To have a complete background in the English murder mystery you really need to read Cyril Hare.