cover her face

If you dream like I dream you know that dreams are heavy, and they make you sensitive to other people’s dreams. It’s like walking around with a bellyful of strong magnets, and getting close to other’s success and failures pulls at you like an electromagnetic field. I want to be a person that has the confidence to stay in my own body and my own dream, but I am not that person yet. The more I see a likeness of myself in another, the more I sense that kinship, the more jealous I get of their success. It’s small-minded.

That’s why it’s nice from time to time to be reminded that even—or especially!—good creators had their own growth process.

First edition of P.D. James’ Cover Her Face

I just finished listening to Cover Her Face, the first Adam Dalgleish novel by mystery writer P.D. James (1920-2014). I was a mystery-novel addict for a couple years at the end of middle school and end of high school. In that way where small stretches of time leave deep impressions when they come during periods of identity formation and reformation, it was only a couple years and maybe 200 books read, but I was a Mystery Reader™️ and I considered myself a connoisseur. I loved P.D. James’ novels because her police inspector hero Dalgleish was a former Anglican seminarian and sometimes poet who often got lost in introspective musings about good and evil as he investigated crimes. As I reflect with a little more knowing eye, I think there was probably something attractive to me about Dalgleish’s non-threatening attractive sexlessness (the characters that he encounters often note his blond English handsomeness, decency of character, and perfect manners).

Cover Her Face, however, is a bit of a mess. It seems to belong to a different generation of mystery novels, it’s set in an English country estate with lots of judgmental villagers. Not too much different than Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple novels, just without the…uh… charming ethnic stereotypes?* Dalgleish is a bit of a non-entity, there’s none of the depth that comes in into her later novels featuring the character. There’s a lot of judgey slut and victim shaming and maybe that’s an accurate depiction of village morés, but it’s still not that fun to read. And, frankly, the puzzle box plot was not that interesting and I found it extremely tedious to finish.

*It’s a joke, they’re not charming, although they were very confusing to a 12-year old Mexican-American boy in California who had no idea that you were supposed to find Turkish, Greek or Italian characters inherently suspicious.

But here comes the little bit of positivity!: what a remarkable accomplishment to keep growing and changing throughout such a long career! There’s little in this book that couldn’t have been written in the 1940’s, and yet one of my very favorite of her books, Children of Men, is fully contemporary*. Even though it was written in 1992, it anticipated today’s anxieties about the environment, demographic changes, and made some very good predictions about how modern media culture would handle an atmosphere of slow catastrophic decline.

*One of my very favorite phenomena is when a book is very good and it’s movie adaptation is  different but very good too. The book is more interested in the ideas of how a culture responds when it knows it has an ending date. What do you do with the artwork? What’s the point of keeping scholarly work going—or politics? How do you make meaning when none of your choices will outlive you. The movie is more interested in how scarcity creates a zero-sum mentality, and the way that in a civilization under threat, pluralism becomes threatened too. Both very good, and in very different ways. 

That seems to be all I’ve got.

Cover Her Face: I recommend skipping and reading one of her later Dalgleish novels. For completists only.

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