Shroud for a Nightingale

by P. D. James

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A classic whodunit, Shroud for a Nightingale traces an investigation by Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh into the sudden deaths of two students in the virtually all-female world of Nightingale House, the nurses’ training school at the John Carpendar Hospital. The book opens in bleak winter with the spectacularly public, grisly poisoning—during a training inspector’s visit—of Heather Pearce, the student taking the role of the patient in a demonstration of stomach-tube feeding. In the second chapter, Jo Fallon, the nurse whom Pearce replaced at the last moment, dies quietly in bed after drinking a poisoned whiskey nightcap. The remaining six chapters of the story detail Dalgliesh’s careful probing of this closed community’s secrets with the help of his subordinate, Masterson, with whom he has a civil but not cordial working relationship.

Introduced into the narrative in pensive reflection over the second corpse, Dalgliesh moves swiftly to a formal interrogation of Nightingale House’s inhabitants. It is primarily through his eyes that the investigation unfolds, although the story also offers selective access to the consciousness of several other characters, including Masterson, the matron (Mary Taylor), and Rolfe. As Dalgliesh and Masterson interview the variously garrulous, wary, or indifferent suspects, they discover plentiful motives among revelations of adultery, abortion, homosexuality, and blackmail. Against this backdrop, Dalgliesh becomes convinced that they are dealing with a double murder, especially after gathering further clues at lunch with the three senior nurses, Rolfe, Brumfett, and Gearing. Yet his long day’s work is over only after he conducts further interviews, endures a private tea with Gearing, discovers the nicotine poison hidden in a fire bucket, and fixes the time of the first murder in a midnight chat with the school’s maid. The crux of the case, his intuition tells him, is the missing library book that Pearce borrowed on Fallon’s card—likewise missing.

The next-to-last chapter briefly shifts setting for both detectives’ interviews with witnesses in London the following day, then brings Dalgliesh back to the grounds of Nightingale House at night for a severe blow to his head. Now equipped with the library book, however, and Masterson’s information about a dying patient who recognized an ex-Nazi nurse, Dalgliesh confirms his hunch that a woman committed both murders to protect the true identity of Irmgard Grobel, a war criminal. Before daylight the next morning, the discovery of Brumfett’s body precipitates Dalgliesh’s confrontation with the matron, who unsuccessfully tries to convince him that Brumfett, the self-confessed killer of Pearce and Fallon, also killed herself because she was Grobel. Lacking the proof to arrest her, Dalgliesh does not see justice done until months later: On the warm August day of the epilogue, he reads and then destroys the confession that the matron left for him before her suicide.


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James’s fourth novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, Shroud for a Nightingale won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, a Silver Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association, and the label of “masterpiece” from a 1974 Times Literary Supplement review. It marked the author’s entry both into the world market and into the exclusive company of England’s foremost mystery writers, all of them women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. In fact, with the publication of Shroud for a Nightingale , the critical consensus was that James had surpassed these predecessors by creating not one-dimensional artificial puzzles but painstakingly crafted novels—complete with complex psychological characterizations, authentic descriptions, and contemporary social issues—that can hold their own outside the mystery genre. Foremost among the skillfully evoked figures in...

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this and her other books is, of course, her contemplative poet-detective Dalgliesh, who struggles with his own life problems while conducting his expert investigations.

The novel has the healing-institution setting that James often favors for her fiction, thanks to her own background in hospital administration and medical research. In this particular case, by making the crime scene a nurses’ training school, she adds the theme of professional and romantic fulfillment for women to her usual focus on society’s distaste for illness, disabilities, and death. Perhaps unexpectedly for a married author who turned to her maiden surname and ungendered initials when she first took up writing in 1962, James perpetuates some sexist stereotypes here: She makes her three senior nurses variations on the “love-starved spinster” and has Dalgliesh as well as others assume that the pretty students will drop their careers as soon as they marry. In Norma Siebenheller’s words, Shroud for a Nightingale “abounds with old-fashioned fussy old maids and silly young girls who seem dated for a book written in the early 1970’s.” Equally important, the most admirable woman in the book, Mary Taylor, is ultimately disqualified as matron of Nightingale House and as a romantic interest for Dalgliesh by her connection with both Nazism and murder.

Yet James’s portrait of a female community leaves no doubt about how important women can be to one another, whether in rivalry, affection, or ambition. As Carolyn Heilbrun notes, one of the book’s excellences is its focus on “the love one woman can have for another, ranging from possessive passion to a marvelously comfortable camaraderie.” Moreover, intelligence, competence, and compassion are evident among the female staff, alongside a just contempt for Dr. Courtney-Briggs’ and other doctors’ male chauvinism. Dalgliesh himself does not entirely get away with his sexist assumptions about “plain” Madeleine Goodale and “masculine” Hilda Rolfe. Surely it is no coincidence, then, that James’s next novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, was a more obviously feminist narrative introducing her other sleuth, young Cordelia Gray.


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Benstock, Bernard. “The Clinical World of P. D. James.” In Twentieth-Century Women Novelists, edited by Thomas F. Staley. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. This article’s presence alongside nine other essays on such mainstream authors as Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, and Doris Lessing testifies to James’s status as a serious writer. Particularly interesting is Benstock’s assessment of ambience (especially dwellings), interior monologues, and typical dramatis personae in James’s fiction.

Gidez, Richard B. P. D. James. Boston: Twayne, 1986. After situating James in the classic English mystery tradition, Gidez devotes one chapter to each novel in chronological order. He concludes with an analysis of the short stories, which are rarely mentioned; a helpful overview of such Jamesian themes as “Love and Marriage,” “Loneliness and Alienation,” “Justice and Retribution”; and an excellent selected bibliography.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “James, P. D.” In Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. This entry sketches in James’s distinctions as the best practitioner of the art of mystery writing in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In assessing James’s seven novels thus far, Heilbrun notes that occasionally Dalgliesh is a more routine character than he is in the entirely satisfying Shroud for a Nightingale.

Hubly, Erlene. “Adam Dalgliesh: Byronic Hero.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 3 (Fall/Winter, 1982): 40-46. According to Hubly, James’s detective harks back to the tradition of the tormented Byronic hero in a godless world. Thus, it is Byronic narcissism that prevents him from loving any woman but his Aunt Jane, whom he resembles, and that draws him to Mary Taylor, his female alter ego.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. “P. D. James.” In Ten Women of Mystery, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981. With a strong biographical emphasis, Joyner offers insights into James’s writing habits, her affinity with Sayers and Allingham, and her eye for realistic detail.

Siebenheller, Norma. P. D. James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. This indis-pensable, first full-length look at James’s work makes the most of Siebenheller’s consultations with the author. Besides an overall appraisal of themes, characters, and style, and a detailed analysis of each novel, Siebenheller provides a useful bibliography of selected reviews. Whereas she praises Dalgliesh’s three-dimensional complexity in Shroud for a Nightingale, she faults the book’s ending as drawn out and unlikely.


Critical Essays