RogerBW's Blog

Shroud for a Nightingale, P. D. James 25 July 2018

1971 detective fiction, fourth of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. A hospital on the Sussex-Hampshire border has a nurse training school attached; one of the students is poisoned during a demonstration of tube feeding, and a few weeks later another dies in her sleep.

James is definitely finding a distinctive voice here, one that's diverging from the homages to the Golden Age which form the basis of her earlier work. Yes, there's still the isolated environment and the small pool of suspects, but while there's a puzzle to be solved (who would have reason to do both of the actions X and Y), the full solution is much more about the personalities involved than about who was where and when. What sort of person would choose to do it this way, or to write that thing?

So while the long discussions of what sort of person makes a good nurse may seem like mere padding, obviously based on James's own experience in the early NHS, they're also important clues to who these suspects are, and the sort of thing they would be capable of doing.

James also gets away from the cliché of all the suspects being horrible (which Christianna Brand turned into her own distinctive style, but it can get a bit wearing): all these people have nastiness about them, but they all have good points too. Whoever turns out to be guilty, there will be some slight regret that they couldn't find another way of solving their problems.

The structure is perhaps a little weak: as with Unnatural Causes, a dead killer and a confession show up around nine-tenths of the way through the book, but the reader who can notice how many pages are left can be sure that isn't the end of the story.

It's very much a book of its time: a woman in her forties is "old" (and one in her sixties is "horrible"), there's much muttering about the negative effects of a largely female closed society, and it's automatic that any nurse who marries will immediately leave the job. But it's also a book of its time: these student nurses have social and sex lives rather than being locked away in their school, and the people who do that muttering are still characters in the story rather than the authorial voice.

"Miss Gearing has given me the privilege of her friendship for the past six years. I've no doubt that certain people here, certain women living in Nightingale House, have placed their own interpretation on that friendship. That is to be expected. When you get a community of middle-aged spinsters living together you're bound to get sexual jealousy."

Meanwhile Dalgliesh becomes more of a realised character: he's accused of losing himself in the job and falling back on the rules, when it's the oath and the interests of justice that cause him to press ahead even when he knows it'll cause damage (because, and I'm speculating here, murderers are bad for society even if they don't kill again) – but at the same time he knows about and regrets the damage that's being caused. While I have no objection to a Roderick Alleyn, he took rather more books to turn into anything like a real person than Dalgliesh has managed in just four.

The conversation is, he thought, a verbal pavane. If I'm not careful I shall begin to enjoy it.

There's also a point given to a clearly unsympathetic character which was evidently a major part of the generation gap in the early 1970s:

The war was old history. It had no more relevance to his life than had the Wars of the Roses, less since it did not even evoke the faintly romantic and chivalrous overtones of the history learned in his boyhood. He had no particular feelings about the Germans, or indeed about any race other than the few he regarded as culturally and intellectually inferior. The Germans were not among these. Germany to him meant clean hotels and good roads, rippchen eaten with the local wine at the Apfel Wine Struben Inn, the Rhine curving below him like a silver ribbon, the excellence of the camping ground at Koblenz.

Well, yes, that was a change in attitude that clearly had to come, but one can see how it must have been rather hard to take for people who'd lived as adults through the war.

Followed by The Black Tower.

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Previous in series: Unnatural Causes | Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: The Black Tower

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