A Taste for Death Summary
by P. D. James

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A Taste for Death Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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The title A Taste for Death suggests a murderer whose appetite for power increases with each murderous act. It refers more particularly to Sir Paul Berowne, the murdered Tory minister who, weighed down with guilt at the automobile death of his first wife, had lost his taste for public life, undergone a religious conversion, abandoned a flourishing political career, and accepted death. It encompasses Detective Dalgliesh’s questions about his and his profession’s obsession with violent death, as well as Lady Barbara Berowne’s taste for death (she enjoys the “power,” “mystery,” and “ruthlessness” of her gynecologist/surgeon/lover, Stephen Lampart, whose hands determine a patient’s life or death). Even the local vicar at whose picturesque church the murders occur finds himself and his congregation infected by a taste for death.

In this dense and detailed police procedural and novel of manners, Dalgliesh heads a homicide squad assigned to investigate politically sensitive crimes, assisted by the conservative, opinionated, and able but jealous John Massingham and a bright new recruit, Kate Miskin, whose resourcefulness and ambition irritate Massingham but impress Dalgliesh. James explores the sacrifices and compromises that Miskin, as a career policewoman, must make to maintain a personal life, fulfill family obligations to her aged and contrary mother, and escape the poverty and illegitimacy that have fueled her ambition. This case involves Dalgliesh personally, for he not only liked the murdered Berowne, having consulted him about blackmail, but also finds that he and the victim had much in common. Both were cultured, private men, dedicated to preserving civilization and art, schooled in language and literature, and aware of ambiguous human relationships and of the need for commitment to enduring values. Interested in church architecture, nineteenth century novelists and poets, and philosophical questions of life and death, both had a cerebral, detached way of coping.

This close study of the frustrations and precision of police procedures and of the intelligence and instincts that transform the minutiae into details of great investigative moment depends on a single bloodstain under a corpse, a struck match, a moved diary, and a missing button. James’s argument throughout her depiction of the investigation—the gathering of physical evidence, the taking of testimonies, the checking and rechecking of alibis—is that murder changes everyone it touches; investigators, suspects, and witnesses can never be the same. Mother, wife, mistress, friends, brother-in-law, and business associates cannot escape the questions that lay bare their secret hearts. Dalgliesh is aware that murder destroys privacy through “the intimate detritus” of a victim’s life and “through the mouths, truthful, treacherous, faltering, reluctant” of family, friends, and enemies; he also knows that “exploitation” of a suspect’s fear, vanity, insecure need to confide, and lonely grief is “at the heart of successful detection.” Disturbed by the activities of his trade, he nonetheless recognizes their necessity. Actions bring consequences and the burdens of guilt and responsibility must be accepted.

Here again James explores the effects of environment on adolescents. Kate Miskin escapes her origins through hard work and sheer grit; Barbara...

(The entire section is 773 words.)