Newsnight Review discussed PD James's latest novel, The Murder Room.
PD James, reading from and discussing The Murder Room, her 16th crime novel. Michael Gove, she was defiant in that interview about working in an old-fashioned form, did it work for you?
It did. She used the word "classical" and I think that's probably the best description of her style and also of her broader politics and aesthetic. One of the characters, in fact one of the victims, I hope I'm not revealing too much by saying that, drives an E-type Jaguar and the E-type and a Norton motorcycle at different points play important parts in the plot. This book is like an E-type Jaguar, it's a classic, for many people perhaps outdated but for those who love the genre and who love her writing, will appreciate it as an supremely well engineered prototype.
What's impressed me about this, having read all of her work Michael, is that in fact the character who has the E-type Jaguar, he keeps putting this argument "we are too trapped in past in this country". I thought for the first time, she's quite a nostalgic writer, she was arguing with herself about "can you get too attached to the past?"
Absolutely. And it's interesting of course that the scene where most of the crimes take place is a museum, she is discussing perhaps whether or not Britain itself is a museum and whether or not she herself is a museum piece. But I actually think that even though the attempts to introduce modernity through gadgets like mobile phones are slightly clumsy, some of the discussions of modern themes, like the atomisation of the family, the need for privacy and also the curious way in which sex intrudes through the facades that we erect for ourselves, all of these themes are genuinely modern but handled in a very classical fashion.
And also, John Harris, there's a point that interested me, that even though we've seen 3,000 people murdered on a single day, one murder still has this kind of chill for us, what did you make of it?
This is the first PD James novel I ever read, I read it at the Glastonbury Festival of all places, it may well be the last. It didn't drive me mad at all and I loved the fact the plot was ornate and it was completely in keeping with a classical crime fiction form and so on. And being led through the nose so gracefully through this was a pleasure. There is a fault line running through the novel though, and I don't want PD James to be Monica Ali or Zadie Smith, but Conrad Ackroyd, who is one of the first characters you encounter in the book, makes this point about the murder room in the museum. That murder is socially paradigmatic and murder shines light on the society in which it takes place. And the problem is because it's PD James you've got a culturally empty murder, it doesn't tell you anything about modern London. You have people, working class characters addressing upper class characters as Miss Caroline and Mr Neville and so on, people baking biscuits - who still bakes biscuits? And on and on it goes, so that was a problem to me. And I thought as you pointed out really that the attempts to insert modernity into it were clumsy and rather crass. I'd probably much rather have read this as a period piece. If she had of set it in the sixties, I would have thought it was marvellous.
I thought very much the same, that where the euro came in and the job seekers' allowance those mentions felt incredibly out of time. But I also felt, I wondered whether the genre itself has been superseded by television. Because there were so many long chunks about which book shelf was standing where and which picture, and was the light was shining on the glass, and I thought a simple pan of the camera would have shown that. Should I have really been watching this on a palm top DVD player?
I thought the opposite, she is so good as physical description, buildings, landscape, rooms, which most writers don't do any more I think you're right, because of TV. I thought a writer doing this was incredibly impressive?
It just felt as if she wasn't taking advantage of the new technology which could have done it for her.
But some of the interior monologues of some of the characters I don't think you couldn't have captured effectively on television. Of course Dalgliesh was the hero, but I thought that actually his side-kick Kate Miskin, is a far more interesting character. It might seem slightly out of time for the 21st century, she is certainly a very effective late 20th century figure. She's a girl from a working class, a lower middle class background and she encounters various figures from other classes and she interrogates her own resentment towards them. And in that respect I do think that James is not just someone who is perfectly good at designing a plot and allowing to unfold in an ornate fashion, she does also have quite an acute perception about class dislocation.
I thought that also, I disagree with John on this idea of set-up as you say that crimes fit their times, I thought it did in this book. In the sense that in her terms, without giving anything away, the murders come from the idea that people should have the sex life they deserve, in various ways, it's to do with that. I think she does see that as being part of our society, so I thought there was that connection.
It crops up rather late. Exactly the points you are alluding to are in the last 8th of the novel it feels like, there is a reference to swingers' parties on the internet. I'm not giving too much away. It took me until page 90 to actually cotton on to the fact that it was set in the present day, but I didn't have a rather crass mobile phone reference. And the other problem I've got with it, although as I say I did enjoy it, but I thought it was overpopulated with characters. I would have liked to know much more about the Dupaynes and much more about Adam Dalgliesh and a little less about characters who turn out to be red herrings and there's an abundance of those. It than sense I think it could have been incisive and about 100 pages shorter.
I think there problem is there's 12 books about Dalgliesh, its the problem of the serial form. But we move on, The Murder Room is published in hardback this week.