SLEEP NO MORE by P. D. James: Book Review

Three and a half years after P. D. James’ death her estate has given her readers six short stories to delight us.  Sleep No More, these previously unpublished “murderous tales” as the jacket cover calls them, are quite different from the late author’s novels, but they are as engaging and engrossing as any of them.

Several of the stories are set in the Golden Age of mysteries, the decades starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1940s, when Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and G. K. Chesterton wrote their most famous books.  Baroness James of Holland Park, to give P. D. James the title bestowed on her in 1991, didn’t start writing until after the Golden Age had passed, but two of the stories have dates that put them in the decades when the so-called classic mysteries were being written, and the four others in this collection are non-specific enough to have been set in that era as well.

Baroness James’ wry sense of humor is evident in “The Murder of Santa Claus,” a story told in the first person by a “workmanlike” writer of detective stories.  Charles Mickeldore knows he’s not a first-class author like, in his words, “Dick Francis…not even a P. D. James.”  His amateur detective, the Honorable Martin Carstairs, is considered by some critics to be a “pallid copy” of Lord Peter Wimsey, but Mickeldore is successful enough to support himself as a writer.  “The Murder of Santa Claus” takes place in a 17th-century manor house in 1939, with the required assortment of eccentric guests.  There’s a housekeeper, the very strange uncle of the narrator, an air force pilot, a sexy actress, and the elderly couple who used to own the house.  It’s the perfect Golden Age setting.

“Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday” is a tale of two warring generations that pits an elderly man’s wishes against those of his son and daughter.  His children are certain they know what housing is best for him; the fact that the housing they choose is gloomy and not at all what he wants doesn’t bother them as it’s substantially less expensive than his choice.  Matters come to a head as the three celebrate his birthday with a picnic lunch, at which surprise after surprise is revealed.

All six narratives are written in the elegant style for which Ms. James was famous.  Whether told in the first person or in the third, the  storyline captures the reader immediately.  Sleep No More is an unexpected and totally welcome treat, as enjoyable as the author’s famous Adam Dalgliesh novels.

You can read more about the late P. D. James at my Past Masters and Mistresses section.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

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