Death in Holy Orders

by P. D. James
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

The title Death in Holy Orders refers directly to the mystery setting, the isolated and very traditional Protestant theological seminary of St. Anselms, on the bleak East Anglian coast. The seminary is the scene of the unexplained death of a troubled young ordinand and the later murder of a self-righteous archbishop, who was determined to close down the establishment as archaic and redundant and sell its valuable artworks and relics. Both of the dead are in Holy Orders, and every clue that Inspector Dalgliesh and his London team uncover suggests an insider at work, wearing a seminarian’s cloak, opening doors with keys left in-house, and acting in times and places that require local knowledge of schedules and habits.

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For Dalgliesh, the setting holds special meaning, since he spent part of his youth there. He experiences a deep nostalgia for those summer days, rediscovers close ties to the former warden, the elderly and devout Father Martin, and finds peace and rest in this place. Thus, he feels comfortable asking questions about the troubled youth who perished beneath a sudden fall of sand from the cliff above him. James introduces the players, the conflicts, the relationships, and the building tensions with Dalgliesh on the spot observing, rather than coming in after murder has been clearly committed. Amid talk of religious art and of the controversy surrounding a papyrus fragment that could shake the foundations of Christianity, Dalgliesh suddenly finds himself in the midst of multiple murders that strike at the heart of this small, pious community. Although three deaths arouse Dalgliesh’s intuitive suspicions, it is the murder of the archbishop that provides the impetus for calling in his London team. Once on the spot, they and he uncover some of the nasty secrets behind the innocent facades: pedophilia, incest, lesbianism, and greed, red herrings that distract from the main offense. With almost everyone lying to some degree or simply failing to tell all they know because they do not realize the significance of minor observations, progression toward a swift resolution proves difficult.

The power of this novel lies less in the uncovering of responsibility and more in the ruminative journey through multiple, interconnected lives. Through varied characters, with sensitivity and insight, James examines the painful realities of aging—the diminishing of physical abilities; the loss of memory and order in the descent to senility; the steady whittling away of human ties, yet the need for companionship; the haunting memories of past wrongs and personal failures; the decline of authority; the yielding to change; and the instinct to relive one’s dreams through one’s children by controlling the directions of their lives. Her young people, in turn, are thoughtless, insensitive, impulsive, and defiant but also conflicted, needy, and directionless. It is only her mature adults, like Dalgliesh and Emma, who can enjoy the memories of their youth and, with maturity and hope, seize life when it unexpectedly offers fulfilling possibilities, like the love and trust they share after only brief encounters. The romance between Dalgliesh and Emma that begins in this book progresses through James’s next two novels, The Murder Room and The Lighthouse.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (March 15, 2001): 1333.

Library Journal 126 (March 15, 2001): 105.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 29, 2001): 9.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 19, 2001): 79.

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