The Murder Room

by P. D. James
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

Adam Dalgliesh, a commander in London’s Metropolitan Police (also known as Scotland Yard), is one of P.D. James’ most enduring creations. His detecting skills are generally furthered, rather than inhibited, by his keen insights into human motivations; these skills are also deployed in his avocation, writing poetry. While Dalgliesh routinely displays genuine empathy with family and friends of the murder victims, and occasionally lapses into melancholic reveries, he never condones the taking of a life. In The Murder Room, James makes good use of Dalgliesh’s skills but exercises restraint in the degree of personal connection he makes with the other characters, including the criminals. The reader’s interest is sustained by trying to identify the killer, or killers, as well as determine along with the police the underlying psychological motivation.

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James adds a number of twists to an apparently traditional “closed room” murder mystery. While the Murder Room in the Dupayne Museum contains a large number of weapons used in previous homicides, the first murder does not take place there but in the building’s garage. And because the body is burned inside a car, it is not even immediately apparent if it was homicide, an accident, or even a suicide. The second murder victim is discovered inside the Murder Room, shut into a trunk, but probably was put there after being killed.

Another interesting variation on the traditional plot is the large number of characters with opportunity and access, but not necessarily motive. It is up to Dalgliesh and his associates, Kate and Piers, to uncover what anyone had to gain from either killing or perhaps both of them. James offers representatives of different class backgrounds, though not races or ethnicities, who are apparently invested for different reasons in the Dupayne Museum. For some, these reasons include a dark undercurrent of sexuality. The one person who favored closing the museum is the first victim, so the others are apparently in favor of its continued operation. James leaves the reader wondering until near the end about their reasons, while suggesting that support for cultural heritage and British history is not necessarily paramount in all their minds.

The Murder Room

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

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 young groundskeeper, Ryan Archer, who has been cagy about his relationship with a middle-aged bachelor and his gay lifestyle.

The plot takes an unexpected turn when Dalgliesh and his associates discover a second murder on the grounds. The corpse is that of Celia Mellock, a young woman with no apparent connection to the museum. Clever detective work reveals, however, that she had attended the school where Caroline Dupayne is assistant headmistress and Muriel Godby was once employed. When the trail of clues leads to Lord Martlesham, a prominent member of Parliament, Dalgliesh finds the missing link that makes the connections clear: An unusual sex club is being operated clandestinely at the museum, and making its existence public could ruin the reputations of a number of those associated with the Dupayne.

To reveal the ending of a mystery novel is inappropriate, but it is worth noting that James performs no extraordinary tricks to bring her story to a conclusion. The culprit is, indeed, one of those associated with the museum, and the motive for the crimes makes sense once all the details are revealed. Furthermore, key clues are interspersed throughout the narrative so that attentive readers might arrive at the solution before Dalgliesh nabs the perpetrator, just as another murder is about to be committed. One might be put off by the rather trite sobriquet the Scotland Yard crew uses to designate the murderer—“Vulcan,” in deference to the method by which the murderer dispatches Neville Dupayne—but such small blemishes hardly affect the overall impact created by this well-crafted thriller that operates on more than one level to satisfy even the most demanding readers.

It is precisely because this novel, and others in the James canon, appeal to an audience broader than those who regularly read mysteries that James has achieved recognition as one of the finest writers of her time. Certainly the suspense she creates in narrating her tale would be sufficient to make The Murder Room a superb mystery novel. There is more, however, for readers who are not satisfied simply with finding out “whodunit.” The novel is rich in description, and throughout there are oblique allusions to the works of writers such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and T. S. Eliot, giving The Murder Room a texture similar to the works of James’s contemporaries A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble. Unlike so many mystery writers, James is as interested in exploring the inner motivations of both suspects and detectives as she is in weaving a complex plot with many false leads and tempting false solutions.

Furthermore, few writers in this genre would devote attention to the contemporary social and intellectual scene. James does so with great skill, giving readers significant insight into life in England at the start of the twenty-first century. Beneath the strong story line, the novel offers a critique of a society in which social mores are shifting, people tend to equate success with material possessions, and psychological dysfunction runs rampant. As Adam Dalgliesh tries to find the murderer of Neville Dupayne and Celia Mellock, he encounters people trying to save failed marriages, evaluate their own self-worth, and gain acceptance by those whom they love but with whom they cannot seem to communicate.

Ultimately, what sets James apart from run-of-the-mill mystery writers is her ability to create complex characters within the context of the genre in which she has chosen to practice her craft. This will not be surprising to those who have read widely among writers of mystery and detective fiction. Great mystery writers do not simply create a hero or heroine who solves crimes. Instead, they fashion detectives (and sometimes villains) whose personalities transcend individual story lines. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie created memorable figures whose ability to sift through the many false clues to arrive at the solution to murders, robberies, and other felony offenses was only one part of their enduring charm. Over a series of books figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Sir Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple are developed as complex personalities with personal idiosyncrasies and weaknesses of character that allow readers to identify with them on a personal level. Few who have read the Holmes stories have missed the difficulties Dr. Watson has with Holmes’s cocaine addiction. Similarly, few familiar with Poirot’s exceptional mental abilities at detection have not also been alternately attracted or put off by the Belgian sleuth’s fastidious personal habits.

James follows in this tradition by creating one of the most complex of all popular investigators. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is a published poet who is repulsed by murder and saddened at the brutality he witnesses on a daily basis. He is sometimes aloof from his subordinates, often detached from his work, and frequently conflicted as he tries to balance his career with his personal life. As readers familiar with earlier James novels featuring Dalgliesh know all too well, the inspector is seldom as successful in love as he is in solving crimes.

In The Murder Room, he is once again attempting to make a relationship work, this time with Cambridge University professor Emma Lavenham. Early in the story his work prevents him from keeping an engagement with her, bringing upon himself opprobrium from her roommate and a gnawing sense of anxiety that recurs as he pursues the culprit in the Dupayne Museum murders. The novel ends not with the apprehension of the criminal but with a scene in which Dalgliesh finally professes his love for Lavenham and proposes marriage. Will they marry? If they do, how will their marriage affect Dalgliesh’s work? The answers will certainly come in another novel, in which James will weave the ongoing tale of a complex servant of law and order together with a tale of murder that will keep readers engaged from the first page to the last.

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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 aspects of James’s work and the characteristics of her writing style.

Rowland, Susan. “The Horror of Modernity and the Utopian Sublime: Gothic Villainy in P. D. James and Ruth Rendell.” In The Devil Himself: Villainy in Detective Fiction and Film, edited by Stacy Gillis and Phillippa Gates. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Rowland focuses on several novels in the Dalgliesh series through the lens of the gothic. Good background on James, but without discussion of The Murder Room.

Sizemore, Christine Wick. A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989. Many critics and scholars note the importance of setting in James’s work, and one of the chapters in this monograph provides analysis of James’s depictions of London. Sizemore also offers a good overview of James’s works and themes.

Upson, Nicola. “Behind the Scenes at the Museum.” New Statesman 28 (July, 2003): 38-39. This insightful review focuses on James’s concern with social issues of the past and present, praising The Murder Room as a “thoughtful exploration of human motivation, not just for murder but for simple acts of love and hate and faith.”

Vanacker, Sabine. “The Family Plot in Recent Novels by P. D. James and Reginald Hill.” Critical Survey 20, no. 1 (2008): 17-28. A critical essay that analyzes James and Reginald Hill as exemplars of increased complexity and scope in the genre, using Tzvetan Todorov’s 1977 work on mystery plot structure as a theoretical base. Explores the narrative structure of the novel while arguing that the work is driven by James’s use of the plot device that Vanacker calls the family melodrama.

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