The Murder Room

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Commander Adam Dalgliesh is persuaded by an eccentric friend, Conrad Ackroyd, to visit the Dupayne Museum, dedicated to the “between the Wars” years, 1919-1938. Conrad is researching the high-profile murder cases from that era showcased in a section called the “Murder Room.” He believes types of murders are an indication of the eras in which they occur. A week later Dalgliesh is back at the museum, this time to investigate the murder of one of the three Dupayne siblings who own it, and more murder and mayhem follows.

P. D. James has received many honors for her impressive series featuring Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, and The Murder Room is a finely crafted example of why she is often called England’s “Queen of Crime.” The mystery follows a classic “locked room” plot, with a limited number of suspects, all of whom have interlocking connections with the others. The museum near Hampstead Heath is fictitious, but the cases featured in the “Murder Room” are actual historical crimes, and the novel often offers philosophical commentary about murder and the relationship between detective fiction and true crime. The story takes place during two weeks in 2002 and tracks the daily activities of Commander Dalgliesh, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, and two other Yard investigators. In the process, the novel provides a searing assessment of housing in different areas of contemporary London and the “unbridgeable gulf” between economic classes. There is a classic “did you spot the clue?” ending, but with some other surprises as well, including a major development in Dalgliesh’s personal life.

P. D. James celebrated her eightieth birthday in 2000 when she published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. It is always time for another Dalgliesh novel, as The Murder Room amply demonstrates.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 2 (September 15, 2003): 180.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 16 (August 15, 2003): 1048.

Library Journal 128, no. 16 (October 1, 2003): 122.

New Statesman 16, no. 4648 (July 28, 2003): 38-39.

The New York Times Book Review, December 7, 2003, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 37 (September 15, 2003): 47.

The Spectator, June 21, 2003, p. 59.

The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2003, p. W4.

The Murder Room

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Having taken up writing as a second career, P. D. James has proved that it is possible to achieve renown at an age when many writers have burned out. Additionally, her novels demonstrate that one can write first-rate literature within the genre of the mystery novel, a class of fiction not normally known for its sensitive examination of character or its complex analysis of modern society. Like James’s other mysteries, The Murder Room demonstrates that she is able to work within the conventions of her chosen genre to portray the world not in black-and-white but in subtle shades of gray.

Like all good mysteries, The Murder Room has a strong story line filled with suspense and containing numerous plot twists. Whereas many mystery novelists open their narrative with an account of a murder, James takes a different approach. In the opening scenes, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, chief of the Scotland Yard team that investigates high-profile murders, is taken for a visit to the Dupayne Museum by his eccentric friend Conrad Ackroyd. Located in the London suburbs, the museum is a little-known place where a limited number of specialists and curiosity seekers come to explore the collection assembled by its founder, Max Dupayne, celebrating British culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

A chief attraction of the museum is the Murder Room, in which are stored artifacts from celebrated homicides committed during the period between the two world wars. Ackroyd takes great pleasure in explaining to his friend the unusual nature of three particularly gruesome crimes. These are chiefly of academic interest, Dalgliesh thinks, until he is called to investigate a series of new murders on the grounds of the museum. When Dalgliesh realizes that circumstances surrounding the new crimes are eerily similar to ones described by Ackroyd, he begins to believe otherwise.

James skillfully delays the commission of the first crime until she has had a chance to introduce readers to her cast of characters; their troubled lives make it not surprising that some sort of conflict could occur. The catalyst for such conflict involves everyone associated with the museum. The lease on the building and grounds where the Dupayne collection is housed is up for renewal. The terms under which the children of the late Max Dupayne operate the facility require that they all agree to continue operations; otherwise the collection must be sold. Marcus and Caroline Dupayne want to keep the facility open; their younger brother, Neville, wants it to close. Marcus, recently retired from a civil service position, wants to assume more direct control over the museum’s operations. If he does, though, he will jeopardize the security of the current curator, James Calder-Hale, and that of his sister, Caroline, who lives on the premises. Other employees, such as Muriel Godby, the receptionist, and Tallulah “Tally” Clutton, the housekeeper, worry as well. They know their jobs are at stake, and they make no secret of their concern for the facility’s future. Before anyone meets a sinister fate, readers understand—and in some cases might sympathize with—the men and women whose livelihoods depend on the continuance of the museum’s operations.

When Neville Dupayne is burned to death in a sports car he keeps in the museum’s garage, Dalgliesh returns to the museum to find the culprit. Unfortunately, he and his team are stymied at every turn. Virtually everyone who might be able to help them seems reluctant to cooperate. Early intimations of dark secrets make the commander and his associates suspect that there is more going on at the Dupayne Museum than seems apparent. Not only are the Dupayne siblings unwilling to speak openly about their relationships with each other, but each is also clearly hiding something about his or her private life. In the course of his inquiry, Dalgliesh learns that Calder-Hale seems to be using the museum as a front to continue his activities for the British secret service, from which he had ostensibly retired some years earlier. Caroline Dupayne and Muriel Godby appear to be hiding something sinister as well. Suspicion is cast on all of these people, even the...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)

The Murder Room Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Breen, Jon L. “Murder Most British: P. D. James Strikes Again.” Weekly Standard, November 29, 2003. Discusses The Murder Room, noting that a museum devoted to Great Britain between the world wars is an appropriate setting for one of James’s novels, as James is the strongest contemporary link to England’s detective fiction of that era.

Kotker, Joan G. “P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh Series.” In In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series, edited by Mary Jean DeMarr. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995. Although this chapter predates The Murder Room, Kotker’s analysis of the first Dalgliesh series novel, Cover Her Face, remains important. Describes the evolution of the series from 1962 to the 1990’s.

Kresge-Cingal, Daphne. “Intertextuality in the Detective Fiction of P. D. James: Literary Game or Strategic Choice?” Clues 22, no. 2 (2001): 141-152. This article explores connections between James and Agatha Christie, although it does not include specific information on The Murder Room. Also discusses intertextuality in general in the mystery genre.

O’Conner, Patricia T. “Grisly Pictures from an Institution.” The New York Times Book Review, December 7, 2003. This well-written review of The Murder Room also provides a succinct outline of many...

(The entire section is 470 words.)