The character of the place

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It’s not the date palms with their green mohicans which whisper I’m far away. Nor the closeness of the baking wind. But each time I see the name of my hometown, nostalgia creeps in.

Two decades ago, when it was time to travel North for university, I leapt into the back of my parents’ car and within days the mustiness of the John Rylands building with its endless copies of the OED had put homesickness on the backburner.

But this is different. Technically there are libraries here. Technically there is rain. The truth is it’s hard to find the right place to exchange a well-thumbed tale.

The bookshop I visited last week was layered with dust, the smell of never-turned pages intensified by the apathy of the boy behind the counter. He was flicking through his iphone with the nonchalance of any teen anywhere. I wanted him to smile knowingly, to recommend a particular tome for a particular mood. To amble into the back and pick out just the ticket.

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But those days are gone now almost everywhere. Old bookshops with a faintly sacred feel relegated to the caricature of hokey living. Or the university town. Which is where PD James steps in.

I’m reading her Cordelia Gray Mystery, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman . It’s set in Cambridge (UK) and every paragraph feels familiar.

PD James, in case you haven’t met, sits at the high table of Mystery/Crime writing. Those who followed – Ian Rankin and his Edinburgh ‘state of mind’, the purveyors of Nordic Noir and the many other crime gem creators – know from James that setting in a crime novel is more than another character. It’s stage, set and curtain. It alters the balance of a book.

James’ 1970s Cambridge feels real and at once quite dated. A place of boarding houses, written in a time when Joshua Taylor dressed ladies and their gents, where Sidney Street’s merchants had not yet bowed to repetitious chain store dullery.

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The flurry of cyclists was and still is there. So are the quadrangles and ghostly morning punts. Her novel is a tangible record of a twee-er place which danced delicately away when flares became the thing.

‘How indeed, she thought, could the heart be indifferent to such a city where stone and stained glass, water and green lawns, trees and flowers were arranged in such ordered beauty for the service of learning.’

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I imagine that James (who went to high school in Cambridge) returned to retrace her steps. How else could she pinpoint the market stall her character uses to buy clothing (amazingly still there or replaced by one strikingly the same)?

The best bit is that PD James’ Cambridge does not sit motionless. The setting speaks and where better to find its voice than through the characters. The coded world of Cambridge students has always been a little alien to us ‘townies’. James clearly did her research. She targets the crime of academic arrogance of which, I am sure, this city is not the only suspect.

Detective, Cordelia Gray is interviewing the deceased’s university ‘friends’ as they loll on New Hall’s lawn. They talk of his funeral and his mother’s response.

‘ “I thought that her suffering was real enough, ” said Sophie
“You can’t tell. No one can. Define suffering. Define real.” ‘

This sudden philosophical turn made me laugh. It gives voice to the confidence of Oxbridge youth, credibility to its setting while revealing vital character information. As in all great crime novels place and personality bounce off one another like shafts of light, illuminating the central premise of murder and its companions, loneliness and loss.

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Between chapters, I picture the baroness of crime, like her heroine, wandering the cobbles of Cambridge, packed lunch in hand, noting locations, jotting street names and college-wall angles. It makes being so far from home quite bearable. I imagine her eyebrows in delighted surprise at the crocuses behind Kings College, unmistakable yet earlier, it seems, each year, heralding the start of Spring.

With thanks to Kohei314 for the image ‘Japanese mobile phone’: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

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