Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

(James, P.D. Cover Her Face. New York: Popular Library, 1962.)

I happen to be in Connecticut for about ten days, because my brother-in-law, who lives alone, had surgery and can't drive or lift anything heavier than a phone book, and Bob couldn't be away from his PA flock that long. He was here for the surgery and left Friday morning, and I had to make the huge sacrifice of being the one who stayed on for a week of helping out and getting to do things I don't normally get to do. One of these things was attending the mystery book discussion group in person Friday night (the first time I've gotten to do so, and I'm certainly hoping it's not the last). The group met at one of my favorite spots in Fairfield County, the farm where The Musings live, which is looking spectacular in its spring colors, oh-so-very-green.

We were discussing Cover Her Face by P.D. James. How should I describe this book? I think the others in the group might agree that it's a perfectly fine way to spend a few hours, but I doubt that I will remember much about it by next month. This was James's first novel, and I can now say with some confidence (its being the third of hers that I've read) that James is not an author to read if you are someone who wants characters to be likable (or at least sympathetic). The other two books I've read are Devices and Desires and Original Sin, and although I read both of them well over ten years ago, the main thing I remember about them is that I didn't sympathize with many of the characters (oh, and that Original Sin is particularly interesting because its setting is a publishing company).

I've recently come to the conclusion that I need at least one (and preferably two) of three things to keep me interested in a book: good writing; sympathetic characters (that's usually number one with me), and if I happen to love them, all the better; or an interesting plot that stays that way. I have been known to put up with bad writing if the characters grab me or the plot is interesting enough. If the writing is fantastic, the plot is good, and the characters are despicable, I still might tell you I loved the book. But please don't hand me a book that is poorly written and has despicable characters who are doing things about which I couldn't care less. James's saving grace is that she's a good writer and that her plot, if not exactly original, at least had some interesting enough twists to keep me going.

Usually when I write a blog post about a book I've read, I do no online research, because I don't want to be tainted by what others have said. This go-around, though, since I tend to prepare for my other book discussion group by looking up at least some biographical information on the author, if nothing else, I did so before attending the discussion. That was when I found out that James considers this book to be a knock-off of Agatha Christie. I think she's right (then again, who's going to argue with the author?), and judging from her later works (this one was written in 1962. The other two in the late '80s, early '90s), I'd say she went from writing pretty standard "cozies" to writing psychological mysteries -- although they still have that sort of "closed setting" typical of "cozies."

One of the things that struck me while reading the book is that unlike Death in a White Tie, one of the other "cozies" we've read for the discussion group, I didn't get bored halfway through with all the tedious nothing-but-detective-interrogating-witnesses scenes, although that's what most of it was. I think this is because James had many of the suspects doing much of that themselves, which kept it interesting. Perhaps there's something to having despicable characters, as well: I was very curious to see what made them all tick, reading for clues and answers, although not many were forthcoming.

Nonetheless, she annoyed me tremendously with some of what I consider real mystery-writing "no-nos." Please don't give me way too many, far-fetched coincidences. Please don't give me a "locked room mystery" that isn't really a locked room (i.e. if someone could easily have entered and exited through a window, it is not a true "locked-room mystery." See John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins for a superb example of what this sort of mystery should really be). And do not introduce some stranger who has made no appearance whatsoever until the final scenes when the mystery is being solved.

As always, the back cover copy on the version I read was nothing short of hilarious. In bold letters on the back, it announces "THE SLAIN SEDUCTRESS." It then goes on to open with this line, "Sally Jupp was a sly and sensuous young woman who had used her body and her brains to make her way up the social ladder." As Ms. Musing said, "I wish I'd read that book." It sounds as though it might have been far more memorable. I promise you, if you open the book with expectations based on this cover copy, you are bound to be disappointed (which may mean that I read this book with an unfair disadvantage from the get-go), unless you happen to define "seductress," "sensuous," and "sly" very differently from the rest of us. Maybe, I'll give you "sly." From what we can gather, she was sly, but in a somewhat unbelievable sort of way.

Overall, though, I'd say it was a good first effort, and I'm still curious to read more by her. Much more fun than reading the book was getting to attend the meeting in person. I was worried I'd have nothing interesting to say, because it wasn't a very complex book, but it turned out everyone had quite a lot to say, and I was encouraged to explore paths I hadn't expected. We had a terrific discussion, comparing it to other books we've read, trying to figure out exactly which category of mystery it is, discussing how much we disliked the characters, oh, and coming up with the title of our own mystery, "The Slain [or is it Slayne] Seductress." I'd highly recommend attending if you just so happen to be in Connecticut some time when it meets.

The next meeting is scheduled for June 6th. Since I was an honorary visitor, I got to choose the book this go-round. Who else could I possibly choose but Ross Macdonald? We'll be reading The Underground Man. As always, anyone who would like to join the virtual branch of the club (where I will be hanging out next time as I usually do) with me is welcome.


litlove said...

Sigh! How lovely to actually BE there!

Stefanie said...

Sounds like a lovely time. I'm not much of a mystery reader but I'd gladly become one if I lived close enough to be able to attend such a great meeting!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, I'm sure they would love to have you.

Stef, it was, and I'm sure they'd love to have you, too. You might even find yourself becoming more of a mystery reader.

Rebecca H. said...

You know, characters are very important to me, but I don't necessarily need them to be sympathetic. As I was reading the James, it never crossed my mind that the characters weren't particularly agreeable! They aren't, but I found some of them interesting anyway. I suppose I just need characters who are interesting to think about, regardless of whether they are sympathetic or not.