The Murder Room

by P. D. James

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Critics have often described cozy mysteries, especially of the traditional, locked room variety that P. D. James writes, a conservative genre. In these works, the moral center of the universe is disturbed through a murder or multiple murders until a sleuth, such as James's detective Adam Dalgliesh, discovers the killer and stems the threatening tide of chaos. With the solution of the murder, "Satan" is cast from the garden, order is restored, and crime is punished. This central theme of good triumphing over evil, the heart of a satisfying mystery, emerges in The Murder Room as such vices are lust, greed, and hatred are encountered and (at least temporarily) defeated.

Not surprisingly for a conservative genre, the ever-present influence of the past also becomes an important theme in this mystery. The struggle between the past and the future is a central motivation for murder. Neville Dupayne, one of three siblings who are trustees for the Dupayne Museum, is determined to shut it down, while the two siblings Marcus and Caroline oppose that change. Neville wants the money that could flow into the financially strapped museum to help his daughter, and so is future oriented: he wants to cut the ties with the past the costly museum represents. Marcus and Caroline, if not for the purest reasons, are vested in the status-quo that the museum, with its focus on history, represents and so are tied to the past it depicts. Thus the mystery becomes more than just a clash between siblings: visions of past and future are put into conflict.

Central to the museum is its murder room, which displays grisly and prominent murders from the interwar period from 1918 to 1939. As the book states, "Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age.'' Each murder shown ''couldn't have happened at any other time, not in precisely the way it did happen.'' Yet the past casts its shadow on the present. Neville, the threatening symbol of the future and change, is murdered, in what appears a copy-cat of a murder from the museum. Paradoxically, the very act meant to preserve the status quo of the museum—murder—shakes the moral foundations of that universe. The novel thus calls into question the boundaries of preserving the past. How far is too far to go to maintain what was?

Appearance versus reality, as is often the case in mysteries, becomes another important theme in The Murder Room. The museum may represent the past, but, as we find, the seamy side of modernity has already, symbolically, invaded the "sacred" museum grounds, which have been hijacked by night as a seamy sex club. Other secrets emerge, suggesting that the past the museum so carefully preserves, even including records of murder, won't reveal all its secrets until its order is threatened and disturbed.

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