Social Concerns / Themes
Noted for her keen sociocultural perceptions, P. D. James once again addresses the issue of a child in search of identity. Sixteen-year-old Eleanor Kerrison, the victim of a broken home, seeks the affection of her father and resents all interference, especially an unlikable housekeeper/companion. She is unaware of her father's indifference to her in preference to her brother, William, whose custody is his obsession. Dealing with the role of human passions in their various forms, James addresses the jealousy between the arrogant Edwin Lorrimer, the victim of an unknown murderer, and the newly appointed Director of the Forensic Science Laboratory, Maxim Howarth. She suggests an incestuous relationship between Maxim Howarth and his half-sister Domenica Schofield, a factor not to be ignored in Howarth's resentment of his sister's former lover, Lorrimer. The novel also treats of the tension between the perfectionist Lorrimer and his mediocre Scientific Officer Cliff Bradley. James treats with classical delicacy the lesbian relationship between Stella Mawson, an enigmatic writer, and Angela Foley, the twenty-seven-year-old personal secretary to the Director of Hoggatt's Laboratory.
While necessarily the main purpose of the story is to find the murderer — to establish by facts who and how — James brings the reader face to face with the why, observing that more murders are provoked by love than by hate. Critics admire her "profound insight into sexual fears and needs," and with classical perception she examines the intricacies of human relationships. Her world so often deals with individuals who do not know a family bond, who are isolated physically as well as spiritually, the Dostoevskian humiliated and injured, seekers after justice in a world of blurred moral values and standards.