Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales

P D James
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
This book would make a good Christmas present. The six murderous tales should ideally be savoured on a dark winter's night.

P D James was the acknowledged “Queen of Crime”, a title previously borne by Agatha Christie. Her fictional detectives, such as DCI Adam Dalgleish and Ms Cordelia Gray, have become household names, as did Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. When James died in 2014 a distinctive voice in crime writing was stilled, to the lasting regret of her many readers. But, like Agatha Christie, James arranged for some works to appear posthumously as farewell fireworks. This book of six neat short stories is one of them. Published in 2017, it is now available in paperback.

As a nostalgic nod to the 1930s, the “golden age of detective writing”, P D James set two of these stories in that era; others hark back to the Thirties by their style or through references. Sleep No More is clever, cunning and startling. The bite-sized stories are ideal for reading in bed, although they might provoke interesting dreams after you had put out the light and fallen asleep. Without giving away the plots, the stories are:

The Yo-Yo. An elderly retired Judge is setting his private papers in order, to spare his heirs the task of sifting them after his death. Among the papers he finds a Yo-Yo that he bought as a child, before the Second World War. This reminds him of an unreported murder which he witnessed at the time when the Yo-Yo was his favourite possession. He is now the only person alive who knows who dunnit or even that a murder was committed at all. Should he set out the true facts for posterity, or let it be?

The Victim. The obscure first husband of a beautiful woman destined for fame and fortune reveals how he revenged himself upon the man who took her from him: i.e. the second husband. The beautiful Elsie is now Princess Ilsa Mancelli and married to her fifth husband. Husbands 1 and 2 have been air-brushed from her CV and her life as though they had never existed, but No 1 is still very much alive and he wants to tell you all about it...

The Murder of Santa Claus takes place in December 1939. This is a classic Agatha Christie situation, but with a darker twist: a rich man invites a group of friends and relations to pass Christmas with him in his manor house. Not only do some of the guests dislike each other; most of them have some reason for disliking their host, who is the “Santa Claus” of the title. They remain in touch with him mainly in order to discover to whom he is going to leave his wealth; he knows this perfectly well. It is not surprising that the disagreeable host gets murdered. We observe the murder from the perspectives of a young schoolboy relation of the victim who was present that fatal Christmas and, in retrospect, that of a retired 76-year-old retired police officer who, as a young and newly promoted Detective Inspector, investigated the murder in 1939.

The Girl who Loved Graveyards. This is a psychological murder mystery. The plain and unlikeable girl in question lost her lovable father and detestable grandmother, allegedly from influenza, at an early age in 1956. She has no conscious memory of them. Since then she has lived with an uncle and aunt in East London. When they emigrate, leaving her - now a young woman with a job – behind, she decides to return to her family's former home area near Nottingham. Disturbing memories start to come back as an old tragedy unfolds.

A Very Desirable Residence concerns a Georgian house belonging to the downtrodden, mousy wife of an arrogant schoolmaster. She craves human companionship; he dislikes company and rarely lets her entertain. We learn from her second husband how he came into possession of the wife and the desirable residence, and at what cost.

Mr Millcroft's Birthday, the last story, is the best. Fiendishly cunning and well-constructed, it is also witty and genuinely funny. I was reminded of the acerbic humour of “Saki” (H H Munro). An elderly gentleman threatens to confess to the murder, many years previously, of his disagreeable elder brother in order to inherit his considerable wealth. This has the potential to put the family fortune (some £3 million) at risk and panics his selfish adult children, Rodney and Mildred. His price for not doing so is that he should be moved from a modest care home that he detests to another and much finer one, costing over £60,000 a year. Faced with this ultimatum, Rodney and Mildred cave in. But did Mr Millcroft really commit a murder at all? Was it a hoax created with the help of his resourceful friend, the Brigadier, and two young Army Officers? Or did something worse happen? The dialogue is worthy of “Saki” or even Wilde. One example will suffice:

“You insulted the woman to whom he was deeply, indeed passionately, devoted.”

“What woman? I never even knew Aunt Maud.”

“Not Aunt Maud – Mrs Thatcher. You said that you would rather dive into a tank of piranha fish than be a member of her Cabinet!”

“It was spoken in jest.”

“A jest in very poor taste. Your perverted sense of humour could have lost our side of the family a considerable fortune if I hadn't remembered the arsenic.”


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