Hearing the news last week of the death of P. D. James made me want to re-read some of her novels. As I noted last week, she is one of the few crime writers whose books we usually bought in hardback, because we didn’t want to wait for the paperback editions to come out. So it was a surprise to find how few of them we actually have on our shelves: just 9 out of 19 novels. I thought we had more, but it’s just possible some have got lost in the recent redecoration of parts of the vicarage, involving large scale packing, relocating and unpacking of books. In the resulting confusion it’s more than likely some titles will have got misplaced, with the resultant risk of us ending up with multiple copies.
Anyway, I started with the first of her published Adam Dalgliesh novels, Cover Her Face, published in 1962. It was a fascinating experience. The overwhelming impression I had was of entering a bygone, post-war age which really did feel like a foreign country. A place with different social and moral attitudes, where the English class system ruled even more rampantly than it still does. I wasn’t entirely sure how much irony the author intended in one of her comic interludes, in which a member of the public is surprised (during the parish summer fete, glory be!) by the people in the great house where the murder is to take place:
‘Were you looking for someone? This is a private house.’ … ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Please excuse me. I was looking for the toilet.’ It was not an attractive voice. ‘If you mean the lavatory,’ said Deborah shortly, ‘there’s one in the garden. It seemed adequately signposted to me.’
It was with something of a shock that I realized it’s 52 years since Cover Her Face was published. This means that the time-gap between then and now is greater than the interval between some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and the time when I first read them in the 1970s.
Why did I never feel the same historical distance between me and Peter Wimsy – who is much more upper class than anyone in Cover My Face? I wonder if it’s because, being set years before I was even born, Dorothy Sayers’ novels are prehistory to me. 1962 I remember, so that the social changes between then and now are ones I have actually lived through. Strangely enough, that makes them feel greater and more far-reaching.