Friday, 28 November 2014

PD James RIP: Shroud for a Nightingale

published 1971







[Miss Beale is inspecting the nurse training school at The John Carpender Hospital]

Miss Beale knew from her own student days what could be done with a couple of white-tipped hat pins… The [hospital] uniform struck her as interestingly out of date. Nearly every hospital she visited had replaced these old-fashioned winged caps with the smaller American type, which were easier to wear, quicker to make up, and cheaper to buy and launder.

Some hospitals, to Miss Beale’s regret, were even issuing disposable paper caps. But a hospital nurse’s uniform was always jealously defended and changed with reluctance and John Carpender was obviously wedded to tradition. Even the uniform dresses were slightly old fashioned. Their skirt lengths paid no concession to fashion, and their sturdy feet were planted in low-heeled black lace-up shoes…

“Right, Nurse,” said Sister Gearing. “So we are faced with the problem of a post-operative patient, already seriously under-nourished and now unable to take food by mouth. That means what? Yes, Nurse?”

“Intra-gastric or rectal feeding, Sister.”



observations: Anyone who has ever read this book should be shivering by now, and looking with horror at that quite innocent picture above. Of all the many many crime stories I have read, and all the gruesome and revolting ways of committing murder I have taken on board, this is the one that gives me bad dreams, because it is so homely and then so horrendous: the poison is going to be introduced into a young woman’s stomach via the gastric feed. She will be killed during a student demonstration, the toxin poured unstoppably into her via tube. There is something absolutely vile about this method.

PD James, grande dame of crime fiction, has died at the age of 94. I think this was the best of her books – they got longer, and more diffuse, and more pretentious as she went on. I mentioned favourite policemen recently: if there were to be a list of my least favourite ones, her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh would be right up there at the top, with his wonderful poetry, his miserable face and (in this book) the realization that someone must have been a person of taste because she has one of his slim volumes.

But this and the even earlier Cover Her Face (on the blog here) are both excellent reads, which stand up well over time. The atmosphere and details of the student nursing home are wonderfully done, and the long blowy walk from the main buildings on a dark stormy night is very creepy. Only Christianna Brand, in Green for Danger, made a hospital seem more sinister.

There are a few problems with this one – I’m not convinced all the timings and ages work out correctly, and the ballroom dancing scene is pointless and unpleasant. The murder coming above makes for a startling opening section, but it’s hard to imagine the guilty party choosing this method. But it’s not the day to carp about PD James – she achieved much, wrote well, took her place in the establishment, and gave people hours of enjoyment.

The picture is from the Ministry of Information, and shows exactly the process featured in the book, at a hospital in Surrey.

31 comments:

  1. "I think this was the best of her books – they got longer, and more diffuse, and more pretentious as she went on...."

    I have to admit I agree with this, but I think she achieved near-perfection without Shroud (I have to admit I don't recall the ballroom dancing scene at all!). Another early one I quite like is a A Mind to Murder. I think The Black Tower is quite good as well, but it's so bleak! I'm happy James came to a more peaceful end than her characters in that book. I find her a remarkable person, even though I disagreed with her on a lot of matters of mystery writing aesthetics. She will be missed.

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    1. Thanks Curt - and thanks for putting so well something I was trying to say - but you did it much better. I had issues with some of her books, and I totally disagreed with her politics, but I admired her for being straightforward, for speaking out, for taking her place in the world with neither false modesty nor pushiness: she was a fine woman in public life

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    2. Yes to all that, and also the way she inspired people with the active life she maintained into her 90s. I don't know who was right when she famously tangled with that BBC head a few years ago, but the vigor with which she went at it was astounding!

      James condemned Golden Age mysteries for their snobbishness, but ironically I think we can see it in her work as well; yet as with Golden Age works there is much of merit to be found in her work as well. If everyone wrote from the same perspective on every matter and in the same manner what a dull, unchallenging world it would be.

      By the way in my comment above that should be "near-perfection with Shroud," not without!

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    3. Again, you put it so well. I think it's a bit rich of her to criticize others' snobbishness.... but as you say, still much to admire.

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  2. The opening is genuinely startling, I agree, while the ballroom scene is weird, grotesque and seems to go on forever! I much prefer DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS

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    1. Thanks Sergio - I'm minded to do some re-reading: I have read most of her books once, but a while ago, and might get something different out of them now. I don't remember much about Expert Witness...

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    2. I'm going to have to read this again to find out about the ballroom scene. I'm ashamed to admit I've read this book twice and don't recall it!

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  3. Moira, I'm guilty of overlooking P.D. James' fiction though I might have read one or two novels somewhere in the past. I don't remember if I ever read an Inspector Adam Dalgliesh story. She will be one of many authors whose books I have read posthumously. Better late than never.

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    1. Try a short one first Prashant! I'll be interested to know what you think of her.

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  4. Moira - There's no denying James' impact on the genre. And you're right about her ability to convey atmosphere, too. This particular book is a terrific example of that, as you really feel you're at this training school. She was good at building tension, too.

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    1. Yes indeed, she was quite something, and will be much missed.

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  5. I'm probably in a minority in saying I have never read her - and sad though her passing is, I'm probably not compelled to correct that either.
    I think you should have used an image with Hatti Jacques to lighten the mood! http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51toEuiiziL._SX300_.jpg

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    1. I was smiling before I opened the link, just at the thought, and laughed a lot when I saw it. Hattie Jaques, what an icon. That's the kind of Matron we need to sort out England's hospitals.

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    2. I'm annoyed at myself - because I meant to HAT-TIP Sid James as well....perhaps a distant ancestor? I only have to look at his face and I'm beaming!

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  6. She brought out the banality and shabbiness of the nurses' hostel - but also the cosiness of such an all-female establishment. We aren't really supposed to be nostalgic for them...

    Re the snobbery - in one of her books other patients are expected to be appalled to find a JOURNALIST in their midst!

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    1. Oh that's brilliant! There's a great story about someone (Claud Cockburn?) whose posh family is horrified about his chosen profession: he has joined the Times and his great-Aunt says 'but that's tantamount to journalism...!'

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    2. Yet nowadays one would be impressed to meet someone who writes for The Times - how times change! A suppose an actress is also a career which was highly frowned upon at one time - basically regarded as prostitution. I'm with you on Dalgliesh too - such a dull man! I can't wait to rake through my mum and dad's cupboards of my old books at Christmas - there should be plenty of early Rendells and Rankin's, and some PD James - I'll have to re-read some. As she got older, and obviously more successful, she clearly had no concept of how "the lower classes" spoke or behaved. I've noticed Ruth Rendell has the same problem - I suppose it's hard to write realistically about people from housing schemes when you sit in the House Of Lords! But PD James was probably my second love, after Christie. And such a full and well-lived life!

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    3. Crimeworm, that's an excellent point about the older writers - I think you may be right and it is that simple, they lost touch with other kinds of worlds. And yes, James lived an admirable life, all respect to her. I wish you a happy Christmas of crime reading!

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  7. That really is a great pic you found to illustrate your post. It's just like the book. This is my favourite PD James and I could read it over and over again. She brings to life the hospital and, although it has the feel of an era gone, the emotions are very real.

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    1. Thanks! I was pleased with the illo - exactly because I knew people like you, who really know the book, would appreciate it. Such a good murder story - will be read forever I reckon.

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  8. I enjoyed her earlier books in the Dalgliesh series most, although I read all of them. I actually liked the Cordelia Gray books better, and wished she had written more of them. I had a hiatus from reading fiction and mysteries for nearly a decade in the 1990's and when I got back into mysteries, I reread all of her books. It was a great re-introduction to the mystery genre.

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    1. They're very solid, aren't they? I might try reading some of the other ones, the later ones that aren't my favourites, to see if there is something I missed...

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  9. Thank everyone for your comments about P.D.James, the woman and her books. I only read "The Murder Room," and found it to be very interesting, but a bit too long and detailed for my reading schedule -- i.e., limited.
    I saw the Cordelia Gray series on dvd from TV episodes, I guess.
    I thought they were great and hoped for more, too, but I'll admit,
    in dvd format.

    I wonder what she and Ruth Rendell do in the House of Lords.
    I've heard Glenda Jackson speak, and I agreed with her about
    austerity measures.

    We don't have too many current actors and writers in Congress.

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    1. Maybe you could read one of the earlier, shorter books? - this one, or Cover her Face.
      All three - PDJ, Rendell and Glenda Jackson - are very interesting women, and were/are useful political voices.

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  10. I'm not sure that I understand why being a journalist would be so declasse. But then again, I guess for the wealthy aristocrats, that's a profession they would disdain.

    Having a perspective from the States does make a difference. But I suppose in a mega-wealthy family here journalism would also be disdained as a legitimate profession. Being a writer would be acceptable, but not a journalist, I'd imagine.

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    1. I think in the past the professions - doctor, lawyer - were seen as more socially acceptable than journalism, but those days are long gone.

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  11. Yes

    Over here, journalists reached a new level of respect after the Pentagon Papers scandal, as revealed by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein.

    If journalists are true truthtellers and muckrakers, some like them; some don't. It depends on who is covering up what and who exposes it.

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    1. Journalists vary as much as every other profession, I think, and I speak as a journalist of many years' standing....

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  12. True enough. But your post stirred up the gray matter here and I remembered that my paternal Irish grandfather was a reporter for a New York City newspaper.

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