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by P.D. James, foreword by Peter Kemp
Knopf Canada, October 2017
176 pages
$27.95 CAD
ISBN: 073527438X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When well-loved (and best-selling) authors die, there is a temptation to keep them and their work alive by one means or another. At worst, anonymous ghosts are employed to keep the franchise going. More openly, the ghosts may come out of the attic and admit to their part in the new work. Better still, talented writers try their hand at what might be termed an homage - trying their best to re-animate the spirit of the original inspiration while forthrightly admitting their own authorship - PD James' own Death Comes to Pemberly pretty much falls into this category. But to my mind, the best route of all is the restoration of those fugitive works, usually short fiction, that have escaped being collected and re-printed.

Last year, in time for Christmas, we were treated to a collection of short stories, THE MISTLETOE MURDER AND OTHER STORIES , which has been reprinted this year in paper. But a further treat is the present collection, SLEEP NO MORE, with a foreword by Peter Kemp. These stories are less narrowly focussed on Christmas, and as such, the group is the stronger for it.

There is a central, and wonderful, Christmas story, however - "The Murder of Santa Claus," which dates from 1984 but which is set in 1939, during the "phony war," as all Britain was alert to the possibility of attack and invasion. That historical moment informs the tale, which takes the form of a classic Golden Age manor house mystery that Agatha Christie would have been proud of. But that dark and tension-filled ersatz peace explains much of what the characters do and why they do it.

The first story in the collection, "The Yo-Yo," also has a Christmas connection and like the more elaborate "Murder of Santa Claus," also uses the war as a means of restoring a sort of moral balance, disrupted for a time by the complicity of one of the characters in a murder. That sort of complicity, acceptance, or downright culpability is, as it happens, a feature of all the stories in this selection. Most of them, as well, are infused with a cool irony that acts as a kind of delayed fuse, so that the full implicatons of the story are only experienced after the last word is read.

One thing I would change if I could is very minor. The title, SLEEP NO MORE, drawn of course from Macbeth, seems to me to suit a set of stories more focussed on the macabre than any of these. Every one of the six, two of which are almost novella-length, are impeccably stylish and far from manipulative. They are concerned with guilt, justice, and moral choice, all questions we must take seriously, but presented with great wit and style. I hope there are more stories out there by James just waiting to be collected. And I hope we don't have to wait till next Christmas to read them.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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