Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4632
P. D. James’s work is solidly in the tradition of the realistic novel. Her novels are intricately plotted, as successful novels of detection must be. Through her use of extremely well-delineated characters and a wealth of minute and accurate details, however, James never allows her plots to distort the other aspects of her novels. As a result of her employment, James had extensive contact with physicians, nurses, civil servants, police officials, and magistrates. She uses this experience to devise settings in the active world where men and women busily pursue their vocations. She eschews the country-weekend murders of her predecessors, with their leisure-class suspects who have little more to do than chat with the amateur detective and look guilty.
A murder requires a motive, and it is James’s treatment of motivation that sets her work apart from most mystery fiction. Her suspects are frequently the emotionally maimed who, nevertheless, manage to function with apparent normality. Beneath their veneer, dark secrets fester, producing the phobias and compulsions they take such pains to disguise. James’s novels seem to suggest that danger is never far away in the most mundane setting, especially the workplace. She avoids all gothic devices, choosing instead to create a growing sense of menace just below the surface of everyday life. James’s murderers rarely kill for gain; they kill to avoid exposure of some sort.
Among James’s novels, The Children of Men is a generic departure, really more a science-fiction novel than a mystery. It describes a dystopian society of the near future, only some thirty years removed from its 1992 publication date. The society has abandoned all the forms, conventions, and restraints that the author values.
Shroud for a Nightingale
The setting for Shroud for a Nightingale is a nursing hospital near London. The student nurses and most of the staff are in permanent residence there. In this closed society, attachments—sexual and otherwise—are formed, rivalries develop, and resentments grow. When a student nurse is murdered during a teaching demonstration, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard arrives to investigate. In the course of his investigation, Dalgliesh discovers that the murdered girl was a petty blackmailer, that a second student nurse (murdered soon after Dalgliesh’s arrival) was pregnant but unmarried and had engaged in an affair with a middle-aged surgeon, that one member of the senior staff is committing adultery with a married man from the neighborhood and another is sexually attracted to one of her charges. At the root of the murders, however, is the darkest secret of all, a terrible sin that a rather sympathetic character has been attempting both to hide and to expiate for more than thirty years. The murder weapon is poison, which serves also as a metaphor for the fear and suspicion that rapidly spread through the insular world of the hospital.
Adam Dalgliesh carries a secret burden of his own: His wife and son died during childbirth. He is a sensitive and cerebral man, a poet of some reputation. These deaths have left him bereft of hope and intensely aware of the fragility of human beings’ control over their own lives. Only the rules that humankind has painstakingly fashioned over the centuries can ward off degeneration and annihilation. As a policeman, Dalgliesh enforces society’s rules, giving himself a purpose for living and some brief respite from his memories. Those who commit murder contribute to the world’s disorder and hasten the ultimate collapse of civilization. Dalgliesh will catch them and see that they are punished.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, published within a year of Shroud for a Nightingale, James introduces her second recurring protagonist. Cordelia Gray’s “unsuitable job” is that of private detective. Gray unexpectedly falls heir to a detective agency and, as a result, discovers her vocation. Again, James avoids the formularized characterization. Gender is the most obvious but least interesting difference between Dalgliesh and Gray. Dalgliesh is brooding and introspective; although the narratives in which he appears are the very antithesis of the gothic novel, there are aspects of the gothic hero in his behavior. Gray, on the other hand, is optimistic, outgoing, and good-natured, despite her unfortunate background (she was brought up in a series of foster homes). She is a truth seeker and, like William Shakespeare’s Cordelia, a truth teller. Dalgliesh and Gray are alike in their cleverness and competence. Their paths occasionally cross, and a friendly rivalry exists between them.
Death of an Expert Witness
In Death of an Expert Witness, James’s seventh novel, Dalgliesh again probes the secrets of a small group of coworkers and their families. The setting this time is a laboratory that conducts forensic examinations. James used her nineteen years of experience as a hospital administrative assistant to render the setting of Shroud for a Nightingale totally convincing, and her seven years of work in the crime department of the Home Office serve her to the same effect in Death of an Expert Witness. In her meticulous attention to detail, James writes in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and the nineteenth century realists. Because the setting, characterizations, and incidents are so solidly grounded in detail, a James novel tends to be considerably longer than the ordinary murder mystery. This fact accounts for what little adverse criticism her work has received. Some critics have suggested that so profuse is the detail, the general reader may eventually grow impatient—that the pace of the narrative is too leisurely. These objections from some contemporary critics remind the reader once more of James’s affinity with the novelists of the nineteenth century.
The laboratory in which the expert witness is killed serves as a focal point for an intriguing cast of characters. Ironically, the physiologist is murdered while he is examining physical evidence connected with another murder. The dead man leaves behind a rather vacant, superannuated father, who lived with him. The principal suspect is a high-strung laboratory assistant, whom the deceased bullied and gave an unsatisfactory performance rating. The new director of the laboratory has an attractive but cruel and wanton sister, with whom he has a relationship that is at least latently incestuous. In addition, Dalgliesh investigates a lesbian couple, one of whom becomes the novel’s second murder victim; a melancholy physician, who performs autopsies for the police and whose unpleasant wife has just left him; the physician’s two curious children, the elder girl being very curious indeed; a middle-aged babysitter, who is a closet tippler; and a crooked cop, who is taking advantage of a love-starved young woman of the town. In spinning her complex narrative, James draws on her intimate knowledge of police procedure, evidential requirements in the law, and criminal behavior.
The publication in 1980 of Innocent Blood marked a departure for James. While the novel tells a tale of murder and vengeance, it is not a detective story. Initially, the protagonist is Philippa Rose Palfrey—later, the novel develops a second center of consciousness. Philippa is eighteen, the adopted daughter of an eminent sociologist and a juvenile court magistrate. She is obsessed with her unremembered past. She is sustained by fantasies about her real parents, especially her mother, and the circumstances that forced them to give her up for adoption. Despite these romantic notions, Philippa is intelligent, resourceful, and tenacious, as well as somewhat abrasive. She takes advantage of the Children Act of 1975 to wrest her birth record from a reluctant bureaucracy.
The record shows that she was born Rose Ducton, to a clerk and a housewife in Essex. This revelation sends Philippa rushing to the dreary eastern suburb where she was born, beginning an odyssey that will eventually lead to her mother. She discovers that her fantasies cannot match the lurid realities of her past. Her father was a child molester who murdered a young girl in an upstairs room of his house. Her mother apparently participated in the murder and was caught trying to take the body away in her car. Her father has died in prison, and her mother is still confined. Though horrified, Philippa is now even more driven to find explanations of some sort and to rehabilitate the image of her mother. She visits Mary Ducton in prison, from which she is soon to be released, and eventually takes a small flat in London, where they will live together.
In chapter 8, James introduces the second protagonist, at which time the novel becomes as much his as it is Philippa’s. Norman Scase is fifty-seven and newly retired from his job as a government accounts clerk. Scase is the widowed father of the murdered girl. He retires when he learns of Mary Ducton’s impending release, for all of his time will be required to stalk her so that, at the appropriate moment, he may kill her. The murder of young Julia Mavis Scase robbed her father of the same years it stole from Philippa. Philippa is desperately trying to reclaim these lost years by learning to know, forgive, and love her mother. Scase is driven to a far more desperate act.
In form, Innocent Blood resembles Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886). Like Anna and Levin, the dual protagonists proceed through the novel along separate paths. Philippa has no knowledge of Scase’s existence, and he knows her only as the constant companion of the victim he is tracking all over London. James makes the city itself a character in the novel, and as Philippa shares her London with her mother, it is fully realized in Dickensian detail. Philippa is the more appealing protagonist, but Scase is a fascinating character study: the least likely of premeditating murderers, a little man who is insignificant in everything except his idée fixe. James created a similar character in “The Victim,” a short story that appeared seven years earlier. There, a dim and diffident assistant librarian stalks and murders the man who took his beautiful young wife away from him. The novel form, however, affords James the opportunity to develop this unpromising material completely into a memorable character. As Scase lodges in cheap hotels, monitors the women’s movements with binoculars, and stares up at their window through the night, the reader realizes that the little man has found a purpose that truly animates his life for the first time. He and Philippa will finally meet at the uncharacteristically melodramaticclimax (the only blemish on an otherwise flawless novel).
A Taste for Death
Commander Adam Dalgliesh returns in A Taste for Death after an absence of nine years. He is heading a newly formed squad charged with investigating politically sensitive crimes. He is assisted by the aristocratic chief inspector John Massingham and a new recruit, Kate Miskin. Kate is bright, resourceful, and fiercely ambitious. Like Cordelia Gray, she has overcome an unpromising background: She is the illegitimate child of a mother who died shortly after her birth and a father she has never known. The title of the novel is evocative. A taste for death is evident not only in the psychopathic killer but also in Dalgliesh and his subordinates, the principal murder victim himself, and, surprisingly, a shabby High Church Anglican priest, reminiscent of one of Graham Greene’s failed clerics.
When Sir Paul Berowne, a Tory minister, is found murdered along with a tramp in the vestry of St. Matthew’s Church in London, Dalgliesh is put in charge of the investigation. These murders seem linked to the deaths of two young women previously associated with the Berowne household. The long novel (more than 450 pages) contains the usual array of suspects, hampering the investigation with their evasions and outright lies, but in typical James fashion, each is portrayed in three dimensions. The case develops an additional psychological complication when Dalgliesh identifies with a murder victim for the first time in his career and a metaphysical complication when he discovers that Berowne recently underwent a profound religious experience in the church, one reportedly entailing stigmata. Perhaps the best examples of James’s method of characterization are the elderly spinster and the ten-year-old boy of the streets who discover the bodies in chapter 1. In the hands of most other crime writers, these characters would have been mere plot devices, but James gives them a reality that reminds the reader how deeply a murder affects everyone associated with it in any way. Having begun the novel with Miss Wharton and Darren, James returns to them in the concluding chapter.
Devices and Desires
Devices and Desires possesses the usual James virtues. The story is set at and around a nuclear power plant on the coast of Norfolk in East Anglia. The geographic details are convincing (even though the author states that she has invented topography to suit her purposes), and the nuclear power industry has obviously been well researched. Although the intricate plot places heavy demands of action on the characters, the omniscient narrator analyzes even the most minor of them in such depth that they are believable. Finally, greater and more interesting than the mystery of “who did it” is the mystery of those ideas, attitudes, and experiences that have led a human being to murder. Ultimately, every James novel is a study of the devices and desires of the human heart.
In some ways, however, the novel is a departure. The setting is a brooding, windswept northern coast, the sort of gothic background that James largely eschewed in her earlier novels. Devices and Desires is also more of a potboiler than are any of its predecessors. As the story begins, a serial killer known as the Whistler is claiming his fourth victim (he will kill again during the course of the novel). A group of terrorists is plotting an action against the Larksoken Nuclear Power Station. The intrigue is so heavy and so many people are not what they seem that at one point the following tangled situation exists: Neil Pascoe, an antinuclear activist, has been duped by Amy Camm, whom he has taken into his trailer on the headland. Amy believes that she is acting as an agent for an animal rights group, but she has been duped by Caroline Amphlett, personal secretary to the director of Larksoken. Caroline has, in turn, been duped by the terrorists, for whom she has been spying—they plot her death when she becomes useless to them. Eventually, shadowy figures turn up from MI5, Britain’s intelligence agency. In this instance, so muchexposition and explication is required of James’s dialogue that it is not always as convincing as in the previous books.
Adam Dalgliesh shares this novel with Chief Inspector Terry Rickards. Rickards is a mirror image of Dalgliesh. He is less intelligent and imaginative, but he has the loving wife and infant child whom Dalgliesh has lost. While Dalgliesh is on the headland, settling his aunt’s estate, he stumbles upon a murder (literally—he discovers the body). Hilary Robarts, the beautiful, willful, and widely disliked and feared acting administrative officer of the station, is strangled, and the Whistler’s method is mimicked. As usual in a James novel, the suspects constitute a small and fairly intimate group. The author has totally mastered the detective story convention whereby at some point in the novel each of the suspects will seem the most plausible murderer.
The action of Devices and Desires affords James the opportunity to comment on the use and potential misuse of nuclear power, the phenomenon of terrorism, the condition of race relations in London, even the state of Christianity in contemporary Britain. Still, what James always does best is to reveal, layer by layer, the mind that has committed itself to that most irrevocable of human actions, murder.
In Original Sin, Commander Dalgliesh’s investigative team has changed: Although he is still assisted by Kate Miskin, John Massingham has been replaced by Daniel Aaron. Inspector Aaron is a Jew who is exceedingly uncomfortable with his Jewishness—Jewishness that will become a critical factor in the last quarter of the novel. Original Sin is replete with religious metaphors, beginning with its title. Again, the reader is reminded that Adam Dalgliesh is the “first,” the dominant human being in each of the novels (despite the fact that he makes fewer and briefer appearances in Original Sin than in any previous novel). Dalgliesh is the son of a country rector. A minor character, a sister to one of the several members of the Peverell Press to die under mysterious circumstances, is also a sister in a larger sense: She is a nun in an Anglican convent. Frances Peverell, a major character, is a devout Catholic. She is also the near namesake of Francis Peverell, whose sin 150 years earlier has placed a sort of curse upon Innocent House, a four-story Georgian edifice on the Thames that serves as the home of the Peverell Press. Gabriel Dauntsey—a poet whose name suggests the Angel of Revelation—reveals the darkest secret of Innocent House toward the close of the novel.
Innocent House, dating from 1792, is reached by launch and exudes the atmosphere of a Venetian palace. It is the site of five deaths, all initially giving the superficial appearance of suicide. Four are eventually revealed to be murders. Thus, the very name of the building is heavily ironic. Inspectors Miskin and Aaron do most of the detecting, aided by an occasional insight shared or interview perceptively conducted by Commander Dalgliesh. Several of the characters bear the burden of original sin, the sins of their parents and ancestors. The motivation for multiple murders turns out to be events that occurred fifty years earlier in wartime France.
A Certain Justice
In A Certain Justice, P. D. James makes use of her whole bag of stylistic tricks, familiar but nevertheless effective. The appropriately ambiguous title refers to either, or both, justice of a particular sort and justice that is sure. The incidents of the novel support both interpretations. The conflicts within and between the members of Dalgliesh’s investigative team continue. Kate Miskin is sexually attracted to her boss but dares not acknowledge this fact to herself. Daniel Aaron has left the force, presumably as a result of his unprofessional behavior at the conclusion of Original Sin, and has been replaced by Piers Tarrant. As usual, Kate is not sure that she likes her male partner. Also as usual, the murder suspects are members of a small, self-contained professional group—this time, from the Inns of Court, where London’s lawyers practice.
As in other of her later novels, James introduces religious overtones. The chief suspect in the second murder, and the victim of the third (there are four in all), is a vicar’s widow who has lost her faith. Piers Tarrant has a theology degree from Oxford; he claims that the study of theology is excellent preparation for police work. Detective Sergeant Robbins, who assists Kate and Piers in their inquiries, is a Methodist of impeccable Christian virtue. He combines two apparently paradoxical qualities, a benign view of his fellow human beings and a deeply skeptical view of human nature. The second quality makes him a very good detective. A key conflict in the latter part of the novel involves Father Presteign, a High Church Anglican priest. He initially receives crucial information about the second murder, but under the seal of the confessional.
A Certain Justice is marked by a parallel structure. As the novel begins, an accused killer is acquitted and so is free to kill again. An earlier such instance drives the main plot. Two characters, their intentions unknown to each other, set out to achieve a certain justice outside the law. Both attempts lead to violent death. James experiments with epistolary form in chapter 36, which is written in the form of a long letter left by a murder victim. In short, James continues to embellish her murder mysteries with the best features of the realistic literary novel.
Death in Holy Orders
The setting of Death in Holy Orders is St. Anselm’s Theological College, a High Church Anglican institution in Suffolk. It is the scene of four violent deaths: one on the nearby beach, two on the college grounds, and one in the adjoining church. Commander Adam Dalgliesh investigates, assisted by Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant.
The influence of religion (Christianity specifically) is a major theme developed throughout the book. Four priests and twenty students reside at St. Anselm’s. The visit of an unpleasant archdeacon, one of the murder victims, reflects the occasional bitterness of clerical politics. The reader is reminded that Dalgliesh is the son of a Norfolk rector, that Tarrant read theology at Oxford, and that the fourth member of their team, Sergeant Robbins, is a lay preacher. Important clues are a missing black cloak and a stolen consecrated Communion wafer. The characters run the spiritual gamut from piety to occasional doubt to skepticism to assertive unbelief; these attitudes are reflected in their behavior when they are faced with violent death. The novel postulates that no place, no matter how sanctified, is proof against the power of evil.
James further employs the epistolary form through the text of a long diary entry in the first chapter, launching the mystery, and a long letter in the last, tying up the loose ends. Again, Dalgliesh proves himself to be no armchair detective. He has his flashes of insight, but he and his team usually solve their cases through solid, painstaking police work.
Finally, Dalgliesh meets Dr. Emma Lavenham, a beautiful Cambridge don, who has come to St. Anselm’s to present a lecture titled “The Poetic Inheritance of Anglicanism.” The two are immediately attracted to each other, and the reader may assume that Dr. Lavenham will reappear in subsequent novels.
The Murder Room
The Murder Room and Death in Holy Orders have several similarities of plot. The latter features St. Anselm’s, a small theological college that the Church is about to close. The Murder Room features the Dupayne, a small private museum that is on the verge of closing. In Death in Holy Orders, Archdeacon Matthew Crampton, who favors closing St. Anselm’s, is murdered. In The Murder Room, Neville Dupayne, a trustee who favors closing the Dupayne, is murdered. The fates of both St. Anselm’s and the Dupayne are complicated by provisions in the founders’ wills. Adam Dalgliesh commands the Special Investigations Squad, set up to investigate murders of a “sensitive nature.” However, despite the fact that the murders in the two novels do not meet this criterion, Dalgliesh is sent to investigate the crimes—he is sent to St. Anselm’s owing to the influence of Sir Alred Treves, a hugely successful businessman, and to the Dupayne because the curator is a sometimes agent of MI5, the British intelligence service.
Here the similarities between the two novels end, however. In The Murder Room, Dalgliesh is back on familiar ground, London. The Dupayne is located in the area of London known as Hampstead, and the characters inhabit a London in which James appears to know every street, bus route, tube stop, and train schedule. Detective Inspectors Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant remain members of the squad. Sergeant Robbins has been promoted and has left. He is replaced by Francis Benton-Smith—handsome, well educated, and resented by Tarrant. The novel is composed of four books. The first introduces the characters; each of the remaining three is devoted to one of the victims.
The museum features exhibits from the period between the world wars, 1918 to 1939. The museum’s Murder Room is dedicated to the most notorious cases of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The crimes in the novel mimic three of those represented in the Murder Room. James employs ambiguity in the novel’s title, as she does in many of her works. In the novel, the Murder Room literally becomes a murder room. The suspects are Neville Dupayne’s two siblings and six other people connected to the museum.
Dalgliesh continues a problematic romance with Emma Lavenham, beautiful Cambridge lecturer in English literature. Each is unsure of the depth of the other’s feelings. They live in different worlds, yet with only the distance between Cambridge and London separating them. Kate Miskin is still attracted to Dalgliesh but has accepted the fact that they will never be lovers. The relationship of Dalgliesh and Emma is badly strained when, because of the Dupayne investigation, he must cancel a London weekend with her at the last minute. Dalgliesh solves the murders just before the day of another, and crucial, engagement with Emma. It appears that he will miss this one as well because of his superiors’ bureaucratic diddling, but he races through a traffic-snarled London by underground, taxi, and underground again. He intercepts Emma just before she boards her train for a return to Cambridge. Always the writer, he hands her a note expressing his love for her and a proposal of marriage, and stands apart while she reads it. All ends well. Emma joyously accepts, and in the final scene of the novel the lovers embrace on the platform of the Liverpool Street station.
As is often the case in a James mystery, the setting of The Lighthouse is itself one of the major characters. The lighthouse of the title is located on Combe Island off the coast of Cornwall. Subject to the provisions of a charitable trust, the island is dedicated as a place of rest and seclusion for important men (and women) who seek temporary respite from the rigors of their professional lives. The desired peace is shattered by two murders, however—those of an eminent novelist and an alcoholic priest, the former of whom dies in the lighthouse, the latter in his chapel. James’s familiar Christian theme is developed through the character analysis of Adrian Boyde—disgraced and no longer addressed as “Father”—whose body is discovered beneath a cope, an ecclesiastical vestment newly made for him by an admiring seamstress.
The relationships in Dalgliesh’s Special Investigations Squad have taken some interesting turns. Piers Tarrant has transferred to the antiterrorist branch, and now that his and Kate Miskin’s half-acknowledged professional rivalry no longer exists, they become lovers, at least briefly. Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, always disliked by Tarrant, has replaced him as the third member of the squad. Kate’s admiration for Benton-Smith grows as the murder investigations proceed. The love affair between Adam Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham continues, passionately but uneasily. Even though Dalgliesh proposed and Emma accepted in the final chapter of The Murder Room, there has been no further discussion of marriage. Each is deeply in love but unsure of the seriousness of the other’s commitment.
As is customary in a James novel, the descriptive details of the setting subtly create the mood. Each suspect is characterized in depth, so that he or she is no mere plot device. Throughout the investigation, Dalgliesh is tortured by the fear that he may be unworthy of Emma’s love. Another, and very serious, complication arises when Dalgliesh contracts SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and for days is desperately ill. Kate and Benton-Smith must conclude the investigation themselves, although their commander furnishes them with crucial deductions from his sickbed.
Emma, shaken by having almost lost Dalgliesh to a fatal illness, announces that they must set the date for Father Martin to marry them. Dalgliesh is exultant as he realizes his years of loneliness and near alienation have come to an end. On the novel’s last page, the lovers, like a handsome couple from a Jane Austen novel, face a future the reader knows will be a happy one.