P. D. James’ publisher has presented her fans with another collection of her short stories, works that were usually commissioned by newspapers and magazines, often for Christmas publication.
Last year, the tradition began with “The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories.” This year, six more of her best have been collected for the first time.
Like its predecessor, “Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales” is a slender volume and, like its predecessor, will certainly serve as a welcome tutorial on what a clever writer can do with a wink — a broad grin, really — at the tropes of the conventional British mystery.
What James does in each of these six waggishly funny stories is to write less of a whodunnit than a “whydunnit” or a “howdunnit.” There are locked rooms, the occasional stately country home and family secrets to be kept, to be sure. But in James’ world there is also a great deal of pain. That pain is rarely physical, though, and a stiff upper lip just isn’t going to ease it all that much.
The collection begins smartly and at a real gallop with “The Yo-Yo,” as a 73-year-old former judge remembers a car trip 60 years earlier during which he witnessed the murder of a teacher escorting him to family for the Christmas holiday. The only clue to the murderer is a red yo-yo belonging to the son of the school handyman who is driving the car.
In “The Victim,” the long-forgotten first husband of an international movie star relates the murder of his former wife’s second husband. As he supplies the details, he comes to realize that people are rarely who they appear to be and that he himself could indeed be the victim of the story’s title.
“A Very Desirable Residence” concerns not only the murder of a mathematics teacher — thought of by his colleagues as “a middle-aged, disagreeable, and not very happy pedant” — but also catalogs his wife’s “great betrayal.”
Both “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards” and “Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday” have surprise endings that even the most astute reader of mysteries will not see coming. In the first, a young woman who developed a propensity for the solace of graveyards when she was an orphaned child now searches for her father’s grave, even as she unveils the murderer at the heart of that search. In the delightfully off-center second story, two reprehensible, self-serving adult children think they have finally bested their elderly father in a disagreement over retirement homes as they share the old man’s birthday picnic.
The true gem of the six stories has to be “The Murder of Santa Claus,” a sort of glorious throwback to “the heyday of cosy ‘whodunnits.’” The younger and older selves of alternating storytellers — one a second-tier writer of detective fiction whose fictional detective is “a pallid copy of Peter Wimsey”; the other, an actual investigating officer — relate their involvement with the same murder “the Christmas of 1939, the first Christmas of the war.”
“Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales” is yet another year-end gift from P. D. James. As stylish and also as mischievous as it can be, this volume of previously uncollected stories is an undeniably appealing way to settle into something “new” from, perhaps, the unrivaled practitioner of the modern British mystery.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.