Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
James is especially noted for the character delineation in her novels. Her detective character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, who appears in other James novels, has been described by one critic as "a catalyst who allows people to show themselves." Here he is more intimately involved since the victim came to him...
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James is especially noted for the character delineation in her novels. Her detective character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, who appears in other James novels, has been described by one critic as "a catalyst who allows people to show themselves." Here he is more intimately involved since the victim came to him before the murder to show him a poison pen letter. In fact, throughout the investigation, Dalgliesh occasionally betrays his personal connection to the victim. He remains the cool, dispassionate detective, however, who questions suspects calmly and objectively, with a maximum of consideration. He is also the clever investigator, who manages to see connections that escape others. He is respected by his associates, feared by suspects, and acknowledged by all as an expert in his field.
A Taste for Death presents Dalgliesh with a new associate, the young Kate Miskin. Having no family except for an aged grandmother who raised her, she is vaguely in search of her identity and is anxious to prove herself in a masculine world. When urged by her teachers to seek a profession more "socially significant," she replies that she could not "think of anything more basic than helping to make sure that people can walk safely in their own city." She has a mild infatuation with Dalgliesh, who feels the same toward her, but he shows extreme discretion in this regard. In the end she proves her valor and intelligence during an unexpected encounter with the murderer, thus gaining the respect of the reader, if not the police force.
The Berowne family is from the petty aristocracy, a departure from James's usual portrayal of the middle class. Although they cling to their ancestral home, their wealth is not proportionate to their social claims. Lady Ursula, an eighty-two-year-old matron, who was attractive to men in her day, maintains a household with servants and schedules, and upholds the integrity of the family until the very end. Lady Barbara, Sir Paul's second wife and the widow of his brother, is, according to Lady Ursula, "third rate." Her beauty is her main asset, and she has used it to attract two husbands, as well as her current lover, Stephen Lampart.
Sir Paul Berowne, the victim, is a baronet, a Minister of the Crown, and a government minister with higher aspirations. He is a man who, according to his estranged daughter Sarah, "wanted to be good." The reader learns about him progressively as the police investigation reveals his past. One day. after a religious experience, he resigns his office, plans to sell his home, and requests to spend a night in St. Matthew's Church.
The murder investigation reveals that he had a mistress who was totally devoted to him, that he had enemies among his household, and that he was strangely linked to two other deaths, that of Theresa Nolan, one of his mother's nurses, and of Diana Travers, a member of the housekeeping staff. He is also linked to a derelict, Harry Mack, who is found dead beside him. In life, he aspired to truth and sincerity, but his death leaves many mysteries.
James introduces a range of suspects. Father Barnes, the rector of St. Matthew's, is a poorly-clad, unimpressive priest, and an improbable spiritual advisor for Sir Paul. Miss Wharton, who brings flowers each day to the church and acts as caretaker, befriends the waif Darren. After accepting the kindness of the murderer, she almost brings destruction to little Darren, the abandoned child who must survive by his own resources.
Ivor Garrod, a self-styled revolutionary who seeks his own advantage; Stephen Lampart, an obstetrician who attains wealth and reputation in defiance of the law and who gains the beautiful Barbara Berowne as his mistress; and Massingham, a devoted but rather chauvinistic policeman, are all woven convincingly into the plot, united by a link to the murderer or the victim.