Book review: Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales by P.D. James

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales by P.D. James
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales by P.D. James

Not all the guilty are brought to justice in a courtroom… sometimes their punishments are delivered in the most unexpected ways.

Three years after her death, P.D. James is still the acknowledged ‘Queen of Crime’ and to celebrate a distinguished career that spanned decades and won her awards from around the world, comes this collection of six brilliantly murderous short stories.

James was a past master of the short story, weaving together motifs of the Golden Age of crime-writing with deep psychological insight to create gripping, suspenseful tales. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories contained four of these perfectly formed stories, and this companion volume contains a further six, published together for the first time.

Her work at the Home Office, first in the Police Department and later in the Criminal Policy Department, and her role as a magistrate in Middlesex and London provided James with the experiences of criminology which she used to such powerful effect in her novels.

But it was her ability to get inside the mind of a killer that made James such a complete crime writer. As one of the murderers in this superb collection reveals: ‘A successful murder depends on knowing your victim, his character, his daily routine, his weaknesses, those unalterable and betraying habits which make up the core of personality.’

And as these six murderous tales unfold, the dark motive of revenge is revealed at the heart of each. Bullying schoolmasters receive their comeuppance, unhappy marriages and childhoods are avenged, a murder in the small hours of Christmas Day puts an end to the vicious new lord of the manor and, from the safety of his nursing home, an octogenarian exerts exquisite retribution.

The punishments inflicted on the guilty are fittingly severe, but here they are meted out by the unseen forces of natural justice rather than the institutions of the law.

James exhibits her expert control of the short-story form as motives and scenarios are conjured up with complete conviction, and each story endowed with a satisfying twist in the tail. And it may not always be a question of whodunit but a mystery as to why or how the murder was committed.

There are those clever few who plan and carry out the perfect crime, the ones who aren’t brought to justice even when they are found out, those who witness a murder or identify a murderer but allow the killer to go free, and one third-rate crime writer who – in a wonderfully self-deprecatory joke from the author – admits that he is ‘no HRF Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P.D. James.’

These are murders with a hint of nostalgia but with a brutal steeliness at their core as we are drawn into the thinking, the memories, the emotional machinations, the rationalisations, the dreams and desires behind murderous cause and effect.

Extraordinarily clever, immensely entertaining and with a wintry theme that makes them perfect for the long dark nights ahead, these murderous tales are a dead cert for all crime lovers.

(Faber, hardback, £10)