Play Dead

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Fifty-year-old Poppy Tasker, who spends much of her time caring for her little grandson and gossiping with other nannies at a London cooperative nursery school, is hardly the type to get involved in a murder investigation. One day she notices an obvious pedophile watching the children. The other nannies are outraged and discuss the terrible things they would like to do to him. Shortly afterward, the stranger’s murdered corpse is found on the nursery school premises. All of the nannies, including Poppy herself, come under suspicion.

Poppy seems like a slightly younger version of Agatha Christie’s famous Miss Jane Marple, who is always accidentally getting involved in murder investigations and using her feminine intuition to solve the crimes. Though handicapped by having to drag along a toddler still in diapers, Poppy assists the police in interrogating witnesses and uncovering clues. Then one of the other nannies is found brutally murdered. This second crime, evidently committed as a cover-up, has the reverse effect, instead revealing the killer’s hand.

Poppy, a divorcee, gets involved in a sexual liaison with one of the prime murder suspects, a mysterious Rumanian emigre who gives her insights into the revolutions breaking out in Eastern Europe. The novel is divided into seven sections, each headed with a date in bold letters, starting with August 1989 and ending with January 1990, the purpose being to suggest that Poppy’s little drama is taking place against the backdrop of world-shaking events in the Cold War. As the novel ends, this irrepressible grandmother finds herself being drawn into yet another affair, this time with the detective inspector assigned to the murder investigation by Scotland Yard.

Sixty-five-year-old Peter Dickinson has twice won Gold Dagger Awards (the British equivalent of the Mystery Writers of American’s Edgar Alan Poe Awards). Though written with impeccable style, PLAY DEAD is slow-moving, both because of the heroine’s encumbered situation as a nanny and the fact that Dickinson has chosen to tell his story through dialogue, with most of the important action occurring offstage.