P D James has long been acknowledged as a Queen of Crime. In the course of her long career, which only ended with her death in 2014, she successfully blended psychological insight with twisting plots and a literary turn of phrase in her much admired Adam Dalgleigh series (check them out on audio CD if you can – they’re fantastically narrated by Michael Jayston), injected a bit of death and deceit into a a beloved classic in ‘Death Comes to Pemberley‘ and also turned her hand to true crime with ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree‘ about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders.
What many readers (myself included) may not have realised until recently however is that James was also a past master of the short story. ‘The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories‘, published last year, was a popular stocking filler for crime aficionados so publisher Faber & Faber are following up this year with a companion volume, ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘, that collects a further six stories together for the first time.
Less overtly festive, ‘Sleep No More’ is loosely themed around revenge and, as with much of James’ work, the stories blend the classic tropes and motifs of Golden Age crime-writing with her trademark psychological insight to create six morally complex stories, all with a twist in their tale.
My favourite story in the collection, ‘The Murder of Santa Claus’, is, unsurprisingly, set at Christmas and sees a workmanlike writer of detective fiction recall dark going on during Christmas Eve 1939. Taking place in a Cotswald manor house and replete with a wicked uncle, an ill-matched group of assembled guess and a shifty servant, the Golden Age motifs are all present and correct and it isn’t long before there’s a side of murder to accompany the mince pies. The wartime Christmas setting is wonderfully evoked and James clearly enjoys playing with reader expectations to create a satisfying ending that neatly re-directed my sympathies.
In ‘A Very Desirable Residence’ and ‘The Victim’, James uses her acute insight into the dark hearts of her protagonists to create two twisting tales of unhappy marriages, vengeance and greed. ‘The Girl Who Loved Graveyards’ is a tightly controlled piece with an ending that is at once poignant and deeply disturbing. And no prizes for guessing the key item in ‘The Yo-Yo’, in which a bullying schoolmaster gets his comeuppance on a snowy winter’s night.
James also has a ready wit and the final piece in the collection, ‘Mr Millcroft’s Birthday’, is both playful and sardonic. Featuring an octogenarian exerting the only retribution he can on his greedy children from the safety of his nursing home, it is a very funny story with a pleasing twist and proves yet again that James’ ability to skewer the absurd and ludicrous can be as on point as Austen’s.
Pleasantly produced in a £10.00 hardback, Sleep No More is a fantastic addition to any crime fan’s bookshelf. James’ many fans will, doubtless, be delighted to have more of her short fiction readily available but, for anyone yet to discover her work, this is an accessible showcase of her mastery of the craft. With it’s pretty cover design, it would also make an excellent gift for a crime lover this festive season.
‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘ by P D James is published by Faber & Faber and is available from today in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.