(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like James’s other mysteries, Shroud for a Nightingale presents murder as an ultimate disruption of the moral order and an inevitable contaminant within a community. Besides being indirectly rooted in the Holocaust killings of thirty-one Russians and Poles, the two student deaths lead relentlessly to an attempt on Dalgliesh’s life, a third murder, and then a suicide. Even the investigation that is essential for restoring order occasionally seems to perpetuate the chaos and ugliness of the original crimes, as when the pathologist callously probes body orifices or the police insist on a precise reenactment of the gastric-feeding demonstration. At every point, James stresses the high price that everyone pays for both the commission and the solution of a murder. Thus, the reinstatement of “normality, sanity” at the end of Dalgliesh’s inquiry never entirely compensates for the losses in human life, professional stability, and ethical certitude.

James intensifies this rather somber mood by setting her nursing school in an ornate Victorian edifice in gothically gloomy environs. Nightingale House’s history matches the dark impulses that belie its medical mission: Rather than commemorating Florence, the matron tells Dalgliesh, the place is named for its nineteenth century builder, Thomas Nightingale, who so abused and tortured a servant girl that she hanged herself. Here, then, is another intrusion of past evil into the present, another dark deed in which the school is shrouded.

In Shroud for a Nightingale, as in her other novels, James insists that the guilty must not go unpunished, with the result that she assigns a somewhat improbable suicide to Mary Taylor. At the same time, however, she makes Dalgliesh’s final victory over Taylor richly ambiguous. The matron’s private confession to him in their dramatic tête-à-tête both follows her...

(The entire section is 775 words.)