Some Deaths Before Dying

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Peter Dickinson's murder mysteries are literature. They are also genuinely surprising in that there is never a hint as to what you will get into in each one—he does not have a set of characters and a designated location to make the reader feel immediately at home. Rather, he opens each mystery with some astounding premise or situation, and reinvigorates the conventions of the detective story by expanding their boundaries.

In Some Deaths Before Dying, the main character is a ninety- year-old widow who is slowly dying. Rachel Matson is in the final stages of a wasting disease. Bedridden, barely able to speak, but mentally as acute as ever, she is unwilling to die without solving mysteries related to her husband's death forty years ago. Her search is set in motion when she finds her husband's antique pistol has been displayed on the PBS television show The Antiques Roadshow; the pistol was one of a set she had given him upon his return from a Japanese POW camp and believed was still in her possession. How could it have disappeared from the drawer where she kept it and turned up on the show? Her patient nurse Dilys helps her to gather the details she needs to examine just what happened after her husband Jocelyn, a war hero who was never fully healed of his war experience, returned home, took up his former life with her but without his earlier passion, and finally died of a series of strokes. What she discovers from her bed allows her to see her life in its full context and find closure.

The characters are rich and layered, as in a literary novel: the dying ninety- year old is startlingly real, and even the minor characters are multi-faceted. The novel has a subtext concerning British notions of honor, what they are and how they can destroy as easily as ennoble. This is a fascinating tale, and is that rare find: a mystery that can be reread.