Printed from:

Welcome to Columbia Magazine  

Tom Chaney: The Certainty of Joy

Of Writers And Their Books: "The Certainty of Joy". Tom says, " I stand in awe at Ms [P. D.] James ability to draw the reader into the mind of her characters and into the complexity of events." This column first appeared 18 January 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine"

By Tom Chaney

"The Certainty of Joy"

I found the newest P. D. James novel wrapped up under the Christmas tree with my name on it -- a rare treat, indeed. Ms James, born in 1920, is knocking at ninety's door. That makes this new Adam Dalgliesh mystery all the more a treasure, for there can only be a limited number to follow.

In fact, in The Private Patient [Knopf, 2008] we are given several clues leading the reader to presume his imminent retirement. "Perhaps I've had enough of murder," he sighs on page 122. And The Private Patient ends with his marriage to Emma -- surely a foretaste of a new life to come and not a life into which the reader will be allowed to intrude.

One of the pleasures of Ms James work lies in relishing the ways in which she continues to outdo herself. Of course, the usual rich complexity of plot is present. Commander Dalgliesh and his investigative team are dispatched to a rural estate north of London to solve a traditional English murder mystery. A patient recovering from surgery has been murdered in a secure manor house serving as a private clinic. The manor contains a limited number of suspects and an entire school of red herring, much in the manner of Agatha Christie.

And a couple of additional murders are committed while the search for the first murderer continues. All are related. All are solved.

But the real P. D. James continues around and beneath her plot.

Out of many instances, I refer here but to two: James amazing ability to describe quite clearly the complexity of character and of relationships; and her deft ability to use point of view as a fictional technique.

The murder which draws Dalgliesh to the countryside interrupts a planned visit with his fiance'e. Emma will, instead, visit her friends Clara and Annie, whose home Dalgliesh remarks, leads one to "the sanguine expectation of happiness."

Recently he and Emma "had attended the ceremony of Clara and Annie's civil partnership." Dalgliesh assists Clara in the cleaning up in the kitchen afterward an intimate celebration of the union. She had "turned to him with a resolution which suggested that she had been waiting for this opportunity.

"It must seem perverse in us to tie a legal knot when you heteros are scrambling in thousands to divorce, or living together without benefit of marriage. We were perfectly happy as we were, but we needed to ensure that each is the other's recognized next of kin. If Annie is ever in hospital, I need to be there. And then there is the property. . . . Thank you for being with us today."

Dalgliesh's associate Benton is young and is learning at his master's feet not only the ropes of investigation but also the psychology of human relations. Outrage at murder must not, says Dalgliesh, evoke such a moral response in a policeman that making an arrest can become a personal campaign thereby corrupting judgment. Thus confronted with a lesson he thought he had mastered, Benton has learned not to become defensive.

In reflecting on his relationship to Emma, James has Dalgliesh observe "A lover was not an acquisition or a trophy to be possessed. There was always some part of the personality which remains inviolate. . . . Because he didn't, or perhaps wouldn't speak openly about the reality of his job, she (Emma) needed to separate the lover from the detective. They could talk about her Cambridge job and frequently did, sometimes happily arguing, because they shared a passion for literature. His offered no common ground. . . . [S]he recognized the importance of his work, but he knew that it still lay between them like unexplored scrubland dangerously mined."

I stand in awe at Ms James ability to draw the reader into the mind of her characters and into the complexity of events.

Many of us were taught in school to analyze the point of view of an author. Does the writer tell the story in the first or second person or is there a god-like distance from the action so that the narrator and the reader are seeing everything at once. A writer should not shift point of view we were told.

Luckily James did not hear of that rule. I am amazed at her use of the moving narrator -- the ease with which the reader is taken into a new point of view as different characters enter a room. This gives a three-dimensionality to the mystery which in this and in all of her work raises traditional mystery to the level of carefully crafted fiction.

One could talk at much length about the craft of P. D. James. I have touched on but two elements which make reading her an exquisite pleasure. On a final note -- when Dalgliesh leaves the scene of the crime, it is not because he is certain about all the motive and detail. The murderer is found; motives are pretty much sorted out. "And at last he knew the truth about those two deaths. . . . [T]here was an arrogance in wanting always to know the truth, particularly the truth about human motives."

He knows that the details and the people of this crime would establish themselves as silent presences in his mind for years to come. Yet he packs to return to London knowing that only one life-changing thing was certain: his upcoming "marriage to Emma, and about that there was no doubt, nothing but the certainty of joy."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-01-19 07:16:49
Printable: this page is now automatically formatted for printing.
Have comments or corrections for this story? Use our contact form and let us know.


Quick Links to Popular Features

Looking for a story or picture?
Try our Photo Archive or our Stories Archive for all the information that's appeared on


Contact us: Columbia Magazine and are published by Linda Waggener and Pen Waggener, PO Box 906, Columbia, KY 42728.
Phone: 270.403.0017

Please use our contact page, or send questions about technical issues with this site to All logos and trademarks used on this site are property of their respective owners. All comments remain the property and responsibility of their posters, all articles and photos remain the property of their creators, and all the rest is copyright 1995-Present by Columbia Magazine. Privacy policy: use of this site requires no sharing of information. Voluntarily shared information may be published and made available to the public on this site and/or stored electronically. Anonymous submissions will be subject to additional verification. Cookies are not required to use our site. However, if you have cookies enabled in your web browser, some of our advertisers may use cookies for interest-based advertising across multiple domains. For more information about third-party advertising, visit the NAI web privacy site.