Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

In A Taste for Death, James portrays the conflict of a fatherless child with an alcoholic and promiscuous mother. Young Darren, who accompanies the elderly Miss Wharton to St. Matthew's Church; seems to have some clue to a murder. Because of this, the policeman Massingham insists upon seeing his home,...

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In A Taste for Death, James portrays the conflict of a fatherless child with an alcoholic and promiscuous mother. Young Darren, who accompanies the elderly Miss Wharton to St. Matthew's Church; seems to have some clue to a murder. Because of this, the policeman Massingham insists upon seeing his home, which is a wretched hovel in a poor section of the city. The mother is oblivious to the problems of her son, who collects stolen objects on which he manages to survive. Once saved by welfare, he is sickly, and was spared by the murderer. The problem of juvenile crime is delicately probed by James, who has had personal experience in dealing with young people and their social difficulties.

James's preoccupation with the issue of abortion is reflected in the spurious medical practices of Dr. Lampart, who has gained his popularity by violating the law and performing abortions when the parents are dissatisfied with the sex of the child. In addition, Theresa Nolan commits suicide after an abortion because of guilt. Her grandparents, traditional Irish Catholics, have mixed emotions: her grandfather condemns her as a sinner; her grandmother takes a more merciful and humanitarian attitude. Although there is no resolution of the problem, the issue is important to this novel.

The women's issue, of relative unimportance in James's previous novels, acquires more prominence here, especially in the attitudes of Adam Dalgliesh's new assistant, Kate Miskin. She has chosen her present career to demonstrate her equality with males, and she occasionally resents Dalgliesh's air of masculine superiority. Barbara Berowne, on the other hand, described by her mother-in-law as "third rate," shows the traditional pride of the nobility, as well as the traditional view of woman-as-mother.

The depiction of espionage movements and a possible connection with the IRA, reflect contemporary political concerns. But a Marxist revolutionary "cell," established by Ivor Garrod, is actually a vehicle for personal vengeance. Inspector Duxbury characterizes the Workers Revolutionary Campaign as "little more than a front," because "Garrod prefers to run his own show." A young woman, Diana Travers, who allegedly dies in an accidental drowning, was a sort of double agent for Garrod and for the Special Branch, and was used to spy on Berowne's political career as Minister of the Crown.

Religion always plays a major role in James's novels. Here, the murder takes place in a church sometime after the victim has had a "religious experience." This religious experience changes his entire life, and he is now prepared to sell the ancestral home, abandon his mistress, and resign his post in the government. James contrasts this unexplained conversion with the progressive de-Christianization evident in the members of the Church of England. Many of the major characters confess disbelief in traditional church doctrines and are mystified by Berowne's sudden change of heart. James never fully explains Berowne's religious experience, leaving much of it shrouded in mystery.

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