(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

James owes her position as an outstanding contemporary writer to her characters. She treats them with respect, gives them backgrounds, interests, mannerisms, and values. Her creations are never stereotypes; they are alive and contemporary. Each one is individual and is distinguished from the others, both in the current work and all others. James's perceptions of human behavior, her understanding of the complex motivation that leads to crime and evil, are particularly noteworthy.

Philippa Rose Palfrey is a blonde, attractive, eighteen-year-old, who like many of her age, from Rene to James Joyce, are searching for their identity. Her adoptive parents, Maurice and Hilda, have hardly been satisfactory role models, yet they have adequately provided for her material needs. A rebellious daughter, she is seeking for true affection and for the meaning of life. Her obvious ingratitude is tempered by a basic insecurity, a sense of rejection, and a need for roots.

Norman Scase, the father of the child murdered by Philippa's mother, Mary Ducton, pursues vengeance more from a commitment made to his deceased wife than from personal conviction. In the office from which he retires to pursue this aim full-time, he is considered a shadowy figure, aloof yet responsible. In his plotting, he is equally thorough and equally secretive. He may be the most interesting character in the book. His is a Balzacian tenacity to purpose, which ends surprisingly, and brings him...

(The entire section is 339 words.)