Sunday, July 17, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (P.D. James)

Title: Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (edited by Patricia Craig)

Canon Hubert Boxdale has inherited a large sum of money from his step-grandmother, Allegra (known to the family as "Great Aunt Allie"). He's reluctant to accept the money, because he was never sure about Allie's innocence in regards to the death of his grandfather; though she wasn't convicted in court, people always suspected that she had murdered her husband to obtain his fortune. Hubert asks his godson, Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, to reopen the decades-old murder case and see if he can settle the question of Allie's innocence with certainty.

Some reasons to read it

  • The characterization of Hubert, who is a good unselfish man. Thinking him naive, people often take advantage of him, but he knows what they're up to even as he keeps trying to help them. A key insight is that "his goodness had in some sense protected him." Dalgliesh will have to protect Hubert too, but not necessarily from finding out anything painful about Allie, who may very well have been innocent. Dalgliesh has great respect for his godfather, and wonders sometimes how a man like that can live "in a carnivorous world in which gentleness, humility, and unworldliness are hardly conducive to survival let alone success."
    Dalgliesh told himself that he should have remembered what, as a small boy, he had discovered about Uncle Hubert's conscience; that it operated as a warning bell and that, unlike most people, he never pretended that it hadn't sounded or that he hadn't heard it or that, having heard it, something must be wrong with the mechanism.

  • Another person Dalgliesh comes to like during the course of the investigation is Allie herself. I won't reveal much more about her. In the timeframe of the story she has passed away, and never appears outside of other people's recollections and records, but her presence lingers throughout. The question of her innocence is answered conclusively by the end; and at the end, after we find out exactly what happened to Hubert's grandfather, we're left to reflect on the nature of innocence.

  • James is an engaging story-teller. Her characterizations are sharp, her writing skillful and precise; the story is rich with wry humor and keen observations of human nature. All throughout there are questions - if it wasn't Allie, then who was it? Dalgliesh tracks down witnesses and other potential suspects who are still alive; he pores over trial records. There's always the danger that the truth will be lost to time; or it might be a painful truth that's best left only partially revealed.


Other recommended tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories are Death on the Air (by Ngaio Marsh) and these stories here.