A Taste for Death

by P. D. James

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

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 Berowne escapes similar limitations through cold-blooded sexuality, producing a legitimate heir. Barbara’s brother, Dominic Swayne, warped by a loveless childhood and a succession of stepfathers, seduces an unattractive household servant to confirm an alibi, feigns friendship to win trust, and hides murder behind a facade of frankness to assure a continued life of luxury. Tough, competent, ten-year-old Darren Wilkes, in turn, controls his environment, despite an alcoholic, prostitute mother, by attaching himself to the kindly sixty-five-year-old spinster, Miss Emily Wharton, whose safety he guards as they provide each other with companionship. Sarah Berowne, in contrast, wealthy and aristocratic, opts for an...

(This entire section contains 773 words.)

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affair with a committed communist to embarrass her aloof, reticent father.

Ironically, the murderer helps each of these characters: killing Miskin’s contrary mother but freeing Miskin from a limiting psychological and economic burden that prevented her commitment to love and career; frightening young Darren but thereby calling attention to an unnoted illness, leukemia; forcing Sarah to realize the obligations of birth and education, reevaluate her relationship to her lover, and understand that she has been a pawn of the radical left; and seemingly confirming Barbara as heir of the Berowne fortune, an inheritance that her suspicious mother-in-law and wary husband thwart.

A Taste for Death is, moreover, replete with convincing details of place and scene: a cold and muddy river bank, a clinically antiseptic operating room, the pleasant cottage of a writer of children’s books, the tidy apartment of the upwardly mobile young Kate, the stately manor of the Tory minister, and the Romanesque basilica where the murder occurs.