Shroud for a Nightingale

by P. D. James

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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 compassionate tending of the detective’s head wound and invokes her blameless past before her murder of her manipulative confidante Brumfett, herself a murderess; moreover, Dalgliesh feels ambivalent enough to burn rather than reveal her final written confession. Yet it is the rapport between the matron and Dalgliesh that casts the most complex shadows on his quest for truth. From the beginning, Dalgliesh not only admires her but also identifies with her professionalism, dedication, and detachment. That he could like a woman who proves to be a murderess as well as a former accused Nazi war-criminal is daunting enough; as his virtual double, she further challenges him with her accusation that, like herself, he hides behind the rules and regulations of his professional code to avoid ordinary human conflict, using them as “convenient shields to shelter behind if the doubts become troublesome.” Indeed, Dalgliesh’s subsequent obsession with incriminating her seems in part an attempt to exorcise his own dark, skeptical self.

Besides complicating distinctions between guilt and innocence, law and justice, detective and criminal, the novel examines the pressures of living in a small, hierarchical institution. What immediately strikes—and appalls—Dalgliesh is the overwhelming lack of privacy that makes everyone’s comings and goings common knowledge, from Fallon’s whiskey-nightcap ritual to Mavis Gearing’s assignations with her married lover. The only intimate relationship that escapes another’s knowledge at Nightingale House is Fallon’s affair with Arnold Dowson, an apprentice writer from London; all other connections, private interests, and weaknesses suffer exposure to one or several other parties long before the police arrive on the scene.

Unsurprisingly, in addition to animosities, such a tight, even claustrophobic, community also breeds a struggle for, and abuse of, power on both a personal and an institutional level. Thus, Pearce sets her own death in motion by her tendency to exert power over others through blackmail. She has no trouble manipulating her...

(This entire section contains 775 words.)

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classmates, but her decision to blackmail Brumfett, whom she mistakenly identifies as Irmgard Grobel, proves to be fatal. Similarly, Brumfett kills Pearce not only to protect the matron but also to preserve her own exclusive emotional hold on the woman in charge of Nightingale House. Meanwhile, Dr. Courtney-Briggs, who extends his surgeon’s power over life and death to a crushing dominance over the entire hospital staff, also seems to be prepared to blackmail the matron once he discovers her past identity. Although he is an outsider to the training school, Sergeant Masterson similarly practices an unwholesome opportunism while there, taking sexual advantage of the nurse Julia Pardoe—who herself unfeelingly manipulates Hilda Rolfe’s affections—as a safe, indirect way of flouting his superior’s standards of behavior. In this context, Dalgliesh becomes an exemplary figure to restore order because of his scrupulousness about exerting official authority and invading personal lives only in the service of justice.


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