P.D. James is an amazing writer. This book, published in her 88th year, shows no diminution in quality from her previous books, and gives lie to those who question the prowess of senior citizens. And what a pleasure generally to read a murder mystery that rises above the level of eighth grade reading and writing! [While I enjoyed James’ erudite vocabulary I found in this library book, a previous library patron who read it had difficulty with it; multisyllabic words were often underlined (in ink, no less), presumably to remind that reader to check the dictionary at some future time.]
This book is a continuation of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, although like the others, it stands alone quite well.
Dalgliesh (or AD as he is known to his subordinates) is a Commander in London’s Scotland Yard (i.e., the Metropolitan Police Service). He and his team are only called in for “important” or “politically sensitive” murders, although AD denies that – in his own estimation at least – any murder victim is ever unimportant.
AD is a private person with a poetic soul who inspires admiration, awe and respect from his crew, which includes Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Detective Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith. He endeavors to keep his private and professional lives separate, and is largely successful in doing so. He is aware Miskin has always loved him, but they never discuss it; in fact, he is soon to be married to Emma Lavenham, a lecturer in literature at Cambridge.
But even while meeting with his future father-in-law to inform him he wants to marry Emma, he is called away on a case. Rhoda Gradwyn, just after receiving plastic surgery on a facial scar in a posh private facility located in an old Tudor manor house, has been murdered. As in other mysteries by James, there are only a limited number of suspects, and most of them have a motive.
James adds depth to her mysteries with thought-provoking meditations not often encountered in this genre. For example, before her surgery, as Rhoda gazes out her window, James writes:
“Time had fascinated her from childhood, its apparent power to move at different speeds, the dissolution it wrought on minds and bodies, her sense that each moment, all moments past and those to come, were fused into an illusory present which with every breath became the unalterable, indestructible past.”
Or this, as one of the characters, while in a chapel, gazes at the cross:
“Under this symbol battles had been fought, the great seismic upheavals of State and Church had changed the face of Europe, men and women had been tortured, burnt and murdered. It had been carried with its message of love and forgiveness into the darkest hells of human imagining.”
These are sentiments you don’t ordinarily encounter in mysteries, even cozies, and it is this elevation from the usual tired mystery prose for which James is so valued. Otherwise, she doesn’t toy with her formula, which includes lingering loving descriptions of homes and land; insightful glances into the minds of the characters; and the acute observations of the principals on the eternal verities that confront them with every death.
It is not until the end of the book that James diverges a bit from her usual modus operandi to wrap up plot and series elements with a flourish of optimism and paean to love. One might guess that she fears this could be her last opportunity to do so. In any event, she ends with a contemplation of life and death that reconciles the tragedy of the many criminal acts in the world with the only path she deems to offer redemption:
“Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.”
Evaluation: James’ facility with the English language is a joy to read. If her mysteries don’t have that urgency of some that keeps you up all night turning the pages, it is all for the best; she is author best savored in small amounts, so you can turn her phrases over and let the flavor of their sentiments blend in your mind. The whole Metropolitan Police Department team is most likeable, and are people with whom you enjoy spending time.
Published by Faber, 2008