Four per­fectly drawn short mys­ter­ies

The Denver Post - - BOOKS -

FIC­TION her own fic­tion.

In “The Mistle­toe Mur­der,” her first and pre­sum­ably only story col­lec­tion (James died two years ago, at the age of 94), a nod goes to the woman of­ten called the best-sell­ing mys­tery writer of all time.

“I ex­pect you are think­ing that this is typ­i­cal Agatha Christie,” writes the ti­tle story’s nar­ra­tor, her­self “a best-sell­ing crime novelist.” “And you are right; that’s ex­actly how it struck me at the time. But one for­gets … how sim­i­lar my mother’s Eng­land was to Dame Agatha’s May­hem Parva. And it seems en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate that the body should have been dis­cov­ered in the li­brary, that most fa­tal room in pop­u­lar Bri­tish fic­tion.”

“Parva,” by the way, is Latin for “small.” And May­hem Parva is not a real town but a dig at the gen­teel mi­lieu in which Christie’s prin­ci­pal de­tec­tives, Her­cule Poirot and Miss Marple, solved their cases.

The four tales in this slim vol­ume, then, are old­fash­ioned, at least up to a point: no noir, yet plenty of shad­ows; no ex­plicit sex, but am­ple erotic ten­sion. And James spins them with the econ­omy de­manded by the short form.

Two of the sto­ries fea­ture that James stal­wart Adam Dal­gliesh, summed up by a sus­pect in the novel “De­vices and De­sires” (1989) as “Scot­land Yard’s most in­tel­li­gent de­tec­tive.” “The Twelve Clues of Christ­mas” is set at a time when the fu­ture chief su­per­in­ten­dent is a mere sergeant, and it is Dal­gliesh him­self who places the story in a crime-lit con­text. As a pedes­trian leaps onto a re­mote road to flag down Dal­gliesh’s car one win­ter af­ter­noon, Dal­gliesh’s “first thought was that he had some­how be­come in­volved in one of those Christ­mas short sto­ries writ­ten to pro­vide a sea­sonal fris­son for the read­ers of an up­mar­ket weekly mag­a­zine.” As we’ve al­ready been tipped off by the story’s ti­tle, that’s not a bad de­scrip­tion of the tale we are ac­tu­ally read­ing.

Many writ­ers of de­tec­tive fic­tion deepen their nov­els by giv­ing their de­tec­tive a per­sonal flaw to wres­tle with as he or she tries to solve crimes. Dal­gliesh’s main flaw is atyp­i­cal — not a weak­ness (al­co­hol or drug abuse, say) or an im­pair­ment (blind­ness, am­ne­sia, Asperger’s syn­drome, etc.) but a strength. Dal­gliesh tends to as­sert his con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­al­ism with­out mak­ing al­lowances for his col­leagues’ feel­ings. In “De­vices,” a coun­try cop still holds a grudge over a too-frank crit­i­cism lev­eled at him by Dal­gliesh dur­ing a case they col­lab­o­rated on 12 years ear­lier.

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