Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cover Her Face

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Cover Her Face (Faber & Faber, 1962).

I can tell before I start writing that this will be less of a review than a "where I'm at" note. With a little more reading time available to me these days, I've decided to tackle a few more novels, and am rotating between Laurie King, Rex Stout and P.D. James, in their original publication order, and will resume Dorothy Sayers after I finish King's series of Holmes and Russell books.

Unlike Stout and King, I am pretty familiar with P.D. James already. I read all of her books, up through A Certain Justice, several years ago, and I think she's a simply amazing writer. I believe that Sayers' Gaudy Night is the best novel of the twentieth century; A Taste for Death by James is my runner-up, so I'm looking forward to digging into that one again soon. Bizarrely, that would be one of the two James novels, apart from the newer ones I need to buy, that I do not seem to have on my bookshelves currently. I can't think who borrowed that from me.

I was also missing the very first Adam Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, which was written in 1962, so I popped over to the Prado and shelled out for one of these stupidly expensive new "prestige" paperbacks just so I could start reading it the following morning, instead of waiting a few days and finding a sensibly-priced copy somewhere else. I'm kind of stubborn that way, and I always end up kicking myself over it. I'll tell you what's more obnoxious than paying a premium price for a paperback: getting one whose cover folds up and stays that way the very first time you open it. Or more obnoxious than that: getting one whose typesetters and copy editors consistently misspell Dalgliesh's name every single time it appears in the text, reversing the i and e. The next James novel on my shelf is a decades-old edition that still has the $1.50 price tag from Waldenbooks on it, and it was produced with eleven times the care that this more expensive volume was.

At any rate, while time passes in Adam Dalgliesh's life and novels (fourteen, I believe), it can't pass at the same rate it's taken James to write them all. The character appears to be in his early forties in this novel, and yet he's still active as a Commander at Scotland Yard some forty-six years later in 2008. I found visualizing the action to be almost as amusing as enjoying the author's prose. Trying to place the actors in 1962, I found myself watching the action as though it was 425-line black-and-white videotape, and cast such actors as Jacqueline Hill and Ian Hendry among the players. Dalgliesh, of course, is Roy Marsden, who starred in those wonderful six-hour adaptations for Anglia TV in the 1980s. Eventually, though, I couldn't reconcile the 46-year timeline to the realities of life, and so I retrofitted the work to 1972 and by the end of the novel, everybody was wearing wide, Jason King neckties. This may clue you in to how comic books and teevee have rotted my brain for prose.

As for the novel itself, it is slight but still entertaining. One thing that makes James's novels stand out is the way that Dalgliesh is given the requisite quirks and traits of any of detective fiction's great heroes - he's a moody, brooding poet who never got over the death of his wife and infant son just a few hours after the baby's birth - but James never lets Dalgliesh's personality and character overwhelm the narrative. In any Sayers story - in fact, in almost any work of detective fiction that is part of a series - I believe that we read because the characterization or the narration is so very entertaining. Yet in a James novel, Dalgliesh is rarely the central figure. She keeps the focus very much on the individuals who become suspects, and plays with their fraying, unraveling lives in the wake of a murder. Dalgliesh himself never dominates the story, and stays mostly on the edges, and we frequently see the suspects learn that he has already been to some place or other and questioned somebody before they got there.

Cover Her Face takes too long to finish its climax. There's far too much of an adherence to the Agatha Christie school of rounding up all the suspects for the drawing room conclusion, and less of an honest depiction of how the police really would operate in a procedural like this. I believe that several of the author's early novels fall into this trap; James had not yet found the voice that would make her books after 1971 or thereabouts so incredibly vivid and real. In short, it's a very flawed debut, and honestly, not altogether promising. There are very good moments in this, tremendously good ones in fact, and some excellent characters, but honestly, I'd recommend that anybody coming to James start with Shroud for a Nightingale instead of beginning chronologically, so you can get a better feel of what she's capable of creating.

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