I’ve been reading P. D. James again, I’m not quite sure why but I don’t really need a reason: I often re-read books I’ve enjoyed. And I love her books, they really were worthy descendants to the Holy Trinity’s creations, by which I mean the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers (the true queen of crime in my view) Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. I would add Josephine Tey to that list but she doesn’t qualify for holy trinity status, as her output was more limited than those other ladies’ and she is generally less known by the reading public. Still, that’s not particular relevant and I will write about the fabulous four instead without further ado.
So I read several of P. D. Jame’s novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, in reverse order of their publication, and therefore going back in time in the life and work of Commander Dalgliesh (as he becomes): The Private Patient, The Lighthouse, The Murder Room and now I’m going to move on to Death in Holy Orders. I’ll see how far my James retrospective reading binge will take me to: I enjoyed the earlier novels too but I have a preference for the more recent ones. Thinking about this, I realised that, romantic that I obviously am, I enjoyed the appearance of Dr Emma Lavenham in the later novels.
That in turn set me thinking about the love interests in my favourite classic British whodunnits. Their authors were all women and they each had male sleuths, who all became pretty famous literary figures. I’m not forgetting that Christie also created Miss Marple (and Tuppence as well as Tommy), Sayers gave us Katherine Climpson and Cordelia Gray is the private investigator at the heart of two of James’s earlier novels. But I’m going to focus here on the (male) famous private investigators and policemen all crime novel lovers know well, and also on their (female) partners when there is one: Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Roderick and Agatha (aka “Troy”) Alleyn, Adam Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham, Alan Grant.
Going back to my James-fest, it struck me afresh that Adam Dalgliesh may be exceptionally good at his job, a considerate boss and an accomplished poet but he’s a bit boring in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way. I felt that the introduction of a new love interest in the later novels was welcome with its addition of another strong female character (James had always provided plenty of those, notably Kate Miskin). But in a way, it doesn’t change anything much. Dalgliesh may be passionately in love but he is still exceptional in every way … and still rather boring.
Hercule Poirot’s love life, if any, is pretty much a blank slate, and if you are so inclined, you may imagine what you like about it. For my part, his portly physique, über careful dressing bordering on dandyism and, of course, his ridiculous moustache place him outside the realms of romance. I admire his sagacity, his insight into human nature and the way he uses his little grey cells but I am neither disappointed or pleased that Christine apparently gave him no partner. He does seem to be the perfect bachelor (notwithstanding the allusions to his admiration for the Russian countess who appears in a couple of stories, after all, a hint at unrequited love being is a prerequisite for a confirmed bachelor, obviously).
Roderick Alleyn, although a perfectly nice chap, is also quite an ordinary sort of bloke, in a well-educated, faintly aristocratic sort of way. The most interesting thing he does, apart from solving a range of baffling crimes of course, is to court and eventually marry “Troy”, a renowned artist. I feel that Marsh put a lot more effort into the psychological portrait of Troy than in that of her husband. Love scenes are more than chaste, in fact Troy displays active apprehension about the whole romance thing. I think it’s clear that Marsh was gay although she depicts gay characters very unsympathetically in her novels, especially Death in Ecstasy. Thinking about it, it’s only gay men that she treats harshly, there is no hint of lesbians anywhere (unlike in Tey’s novels, especially in Miss Pym Disposes). Perhaps she indulged in “queer bashing” as a defence mechanism against any suspicion as to her preferences or perhaps she really, really didn’t like gay men. Anyway, Alleyn, although perfectly nice, does not really stir the heartstrings, at least, not mine. Marsh dutifully makes him conspicuously handsome and has an assortment of female murder suspects trying to woo him, usually actresses, Marsh’s first love being the theatre. The problem is it’s never very clear why they should bother.
I love Alan Grant, he’s by far the most interesting of my male sleuths here, but his love life is also pretty dull. It appears to be practically non-existent, although an adolescent passion for cousin Laura is described in Singing Sands and there is always the possibility of romantic involvement with Marta Hallard (an actress again), which is always resisted, without much effort it seems. Ho hum, another bachelor it would seem. However, whatever Alan Grant is missing in the romance department he makes up for in the weirdness of his thought processes, although of course I mean Tey’s brilliantly rendering of these thoughts. She was a brilliant writer, the Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes feature no Grant, or very little, he makes a cameo appearance in The Franchise Affair, and they are both just as wonderful as the “Inspector Grant” books.
So we’re left with Lord Peter. I think every bookish adolescent needs a literary crush and he was definitely mine. There is evidence Sayers that had a crush on him too, at least for a time, and there is also evidence she got bored with him and in fact stopped writing about him, perhaps when she no longer needed to, from a financial point of view. One theory about Peter Wimsey’s looks is that they are borrowed from John Cournos, a man with whom Sayers in fact had a very unhappy love affair, another is that they are the features of Eric Whelpton, a close friend. In any event, Wimsey’s physique was actually a bit of a disappointment for me, I’ve never been particularly attracted to very blond men and the fact that he was a bit on the short side was a little disconcerting too. Still, at twelve or thirteen or so, I was quietly satisfied that I had a mind above mere appearance (hah!) and I fell for his easy chatter, the “piffle” Harriet mentions very early on in their acquaintance, the fact that he was (completely unrealistically) multi-talented: an accomplished pianist, a fine brain with a first in history from Oxford to prove it, business-savvy (with a little help from Freddy) and in fine physical shape: a consummate rider and diver into shallow ornamental fountains, oh yes.
But even today, he stays my favourite. And as with Marsh, Harriet Vane is the main reason for that. She is a wonderful character, perhaps a depiction of Sayers herself or perhaps the “herself” she aspired to. Anyway Harriet has a lot in common with her creator, including the rather important facts that she makes a living from her crime novels and that she has a first from Oxford too, except that hers comes from the fictional Shrewsbury College whereas Sayers got hers from Somerville College, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford. More importantly, the arrival of Harriet coincides with much more character development of Peter from Sayers and the love interest becomes an integral part of the stories, rather than the adjunct they are in all the others I have mentioned.
So here you have it, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane win the award for the best literary couple in crime fiction, hands down.