RogerBW's Blog

Cover Her Face, P. D. James 26 April 2018

1962 detective fiction, first of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. Sally Jupp the housemaid is found strangled in her bed, behind a bolted door. She'd managed to annoy pretty much everyone in the house… but who turned annoyance into murder?

I have observed before that most murder mysteries fall into one of two types: either everyone claims that they loved the victim, and so there was no possible motive, or everyone has to admit that they hated the victim, and there are too many motives. This book is solidly in the latter category, with a stock of hateful people to rival Christianna Brand. But James does a very impressive thing: while making it clear just why the victim was hated, in at least some cases justifiably, she also effectively shows that even this was not a person who deserved to be murdered.

It was also a fairly courageous move, when the trend in crime writing was mostly for grimness and twisted psychology, to return to an old-fashioned country house mystery (and without the excuse of Ngaio Marsh, who produced Hand in Glove in the same year, of falling back on thirty-year-old habits). But where Marsh tells essentially the story she'd have written in the 1930s, with some spot-colour touches of modernity, James writes as someone native to the era, consciously transplanting a story that needs some modification to fit it. All right, the country house isn't far from London, and everyone moves about rather more freely in this age of cheap motor cars; and yes, there's a certain amount of grimness; but it works, particularly since it comes with a mild leavening of humour.

Select Books catered for that class of reader which likes a good story without caring much who writes it, prefers to be spared the tedium of personal choice, and believes that a bookcase of volumes equal in size and bound in exactly the same colour gives tone to any room. Select Books preferred virtue to be rewarded and vice suitably punished. They eschewed salacity, avoided controversy and took no risks with unestablished writers.

Dalgliesh himself is largely a cipher here: he's a competent policeman, and at least lightly educated, but that's about it. Still, there's more of a person here than there was of Roderick Alleyn in his first appearance. And he does pull off the answer I always want to hear to the "am I a suspect" question.

"I don't understand you, Inspector. You seem determined to suspect the family. If only you knew what they've done for that girl."

"I should like to be told. And you must not misunderstand me. I suspect everyone who knew Miss Jupp and who has no alibi for the time she was killed. That is why I am here now."

Of course this book is written and set in the grim end of the 1960s, and nobody has any money and everything's just a bit wrong. That can be a bit wearing at times, even at over fifty years' remove, though presumably rather less so than it was to the people who had to live through it with memories of better times. But this is a book that does a really good job of showing how the Second World War could still be hanging over everything, even if it wasn't the catastrophe that the First had been.

"He fumes against what he calls the desecration of Chadfleet New Town from a Victorian pseudo-castle so ugly that I'm surprised someone hasn't formed a trust to preserve it."

The only angle that goes a bit wrong for me is that narration occasionally jumps into the heads of the suspects, thus effectively exonerating them; this isn't information the police have, and as a reader with purist tendencies I am inclined to feel that I shouldn't have it either.

All in all it's rather good. Followed by A Mind To Murder.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Search
Archive
Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio tech base commerce battletech beer boardgaming bookmonth chain of command children chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 existential risk falklands war fandom fantasy film firefly first world war flash point food garmin drive gazebo geodata gin gurps gurps 101 harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life kickstarter learn to play leaving earth linux mecha museum mystery naval non-fiction one for the brow opera perl photography podcast politics powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha quantum rail ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1