Although Death in Holy Orders is in many respects a classical English mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and other leading practitioners of the craft, this and other P. D. James novels stand apart from and above those of most of her predecessors and contemporaries because she invariably tests the accepted boundaries of the form. Familiar whodunit character types, motives, settings, and narrative devices abound, but she develops her plots and characters with greater complexity than is the norm, and her settings are organic, not mere backgrounds. In sum, James turns stereotypical genre fiction into a morality tale with complementary thematic motifs. Ever since Cover Her Face in 1962, her crime narratives have dramatized more than the commonplace struggle between good and evil. Time after time she also shows how society’s key institutions—such as the Church and the public health system—fail in their missions. Her work as nurse and hospital administrator, and with psychiatric patients and police forensics, as well as her Church of England activities, are reflected in her fiction. Her interest not only in the practice of religion but also in theological matters is apparent in a number of books, such as The Black Tower (1975) andA Taste for Death (1986). Death in Holy Orders, her fifteenth novel, revisits characters, settings, situations, and themes of her earlier fiction, but this does not at all diminish its effectiveness.
Making his eleventh appearance, Scotland Yard Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is planning a vacation visit to St. Anselm’s Theological College on England’s East Anglia coast, where he spent time as a boy; prior to leaving London, he is told to look into the recent death of a St. Anselm ordinand (seminarian), the son of an important industrialist. Though the coroner ruled it an accident, Scotland Yard has received an anonymous letter that raises the specter of foul play. Dalgliesh—an introspective poet-intellectual who epitomizes the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) operative—finds the St. Anselm community upset by the young man’s death. They are also wary of the imminent arrival of Archdeacon Crampton, a trustee who wants the small seminary to be closed because, despite its endowment, it is not self-sufficient and requires too much financial support from the Church. The priests and others who work and reside at St. Anselm’s have many reasons for thwarting Crampton’s intent, though under its founding charter, when the school property (including valuable art holdings) is sold, the four resident priests will share the bounty. Even before Dalgliesh gets to the school, James has built the framework of a typical mystery novel: a restricted community, anxiety-filled characters, complex personal relationships, a suspicious death, an isolated setting, the prospect of inherited wealth as a possible motive. Her novels normally are longer than most mysteries, concerned as she is with theme as well as event, but the leisurely pace enhances the narrative and makes her characters more three-dimensional and realistic.
When Dalgliesh is about to leave for St. Anselm’s, he recalls in detail his earlier visits, including one at age fourteen when he fell in love with a fifteen-year-old girl, Sadie, for whom he wrote a poem (which he recites to himself). The occasion is so vivid in his memory that he remembers the specific date of their innocent tryst. James also describes his journey from London to Ballard’s Mere, some four hundred miles, at great length, with precise descriptions of the countryside:
By the time he had reached the A12 and had thrown off the tentacles of Eastern Avenue, the first pink gash in the night sky had widened into a clear whiteness and the fields and hedges had lightened to a luminous grey in which trees and bushes, with the translucent delicacy of a Japanese water-colour, gradually gained definition and took on the first richness of autumn.
James prefaces Dalgliesh’s first interview with Father Sebastian by describing the warden, his clothes, and his office:
He was over six feet tall and younger than Dalgliesh had expected. The light-brown hair, only slightly tinged with grey, was brushed back from a fine high forehead. An uncompromising mouth, slightly hooked nose and long chin gave strength to a face which could have held a too-conventional if austere handsomeness. . . . It was a face of a man of action, perhaps a soldier, rather than an academic. The well-tailored cassock of black...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)