The title Shroud for a Nightingale, seemingly suggestive of Florence Nightingale and the two dead student nurses of the novel, refers more particularly to Thomas Nightingale, the Victorian builder whose terrible abuse caused a servant girl to hang herself. Her suicide had been shrouded in secrecy for the modern students at the gothic Victorian structure Nightingale House. “Shroud” equally suggests burial garments and covering to protect, hide, or deceive. Thus, P. D. James evokes nursing, death, and dark secrets in a single phrase.
The novel has two chapters establishing two related murders, six chapters of investigation, and a ninth chapter, an epilogue, which sees justice finally complete. The story moves historically from Victorian evils to thirty-one victims of the Holocaust to modern murders, and it moves seasonally from the depths of winter to the warmth of summer.
As usual, James explores a closed community, the nursing world, which is claustrophobic, ingrown, and hierarchical, and a place of backbiting, gossip, secrets, bids for dominance, and pressures to conform. It also is a world of secret sexuality. Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh finds the school’s lack of privacy disturbing, as adult assignations (lovers brought in through back doors, movie theaters as “meeting” places) and private routines (a whiskey nightcap) are known to all. Thus, some purposefully use their sexuality to manipulate and control; Nurse Pearce lusts after proof of any level of wrongdoing to force others to confess and show repentance in ways she herself determines; Sister Brumfett revels in the secret power she holds over Matron Mary Taylor; and Dr. Courtney-Briggs...
(The entire section is 693 words.)