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Death of an Expert Witness, P. D. James 06 September 2020

1977 detective fiction, sixth of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. At a forensic lab in the depths of Cambridgeshire, one of the senior scientists spends the day making himself as objectionable as possible… and is found dead the next morning.

Those early chapters can be quite hard going, as the doomed Dr Lorrimer seems to go out of his way to be pointlessly unpleasant to everyone he meets. But this is after all a James book, and nobody is going to come out of it well: nor victim, nor murderer, nor police, nor witnesses nor suspects.

Sergeant Underhill, recently promoted, looked young enough to be his son. His boyish, open face with its look of disciplined idealism was vaguely familiar to Massingham, who suspected that he might have seen it in a police recruitment pamphlet, but decided in the interest of harmonious co-operation to give Underbill the benefit of the doubt.

It doesn't help that one suspect in particular behaves in a particularly inconsistent manner which nobody ever notices and which isn't explained. This isn't a neat mystery where everyone has a single guilty secret, though it has the form of one; rather, it's sloppy and full of loose ends, because what it's about is the psychological dissection of all these ghastly people. (Which is why it's been more than a year since the previous James I read, and it may be another before the next one.)

"Odd, the attraction Hoggatt's had--still has for that matter. An unsuitable Palladian mansion in an unexciting East Anglian village on the edge of the black fens. Ten miles to Ely, and that's hardly a centre of riotous activity for the young."

I thought at first that this was a very 1970s book, but I think it may be more James herself: for example, it's an unexamined assumption that any professional woman gives up her job when she gets married (though Dalgliesh tells one young woman, who hasn't thought of it for herself, that something else might be possible)… but while that certainly did still happen in the 1970s, it wasn't anything like as universal as it is here. Similarly, the way almost everyone is constantly obsessed with sex and finding a sexual motivation for everything may be more James than the 1970s' Zeitgeist.

It's dispiriting because I feel that James is hobbling herself in trying to show how clever she is: nigh-on twenty suspects! Grotesque rurals! A confession which mentions every relevant piece of evidence from the chapter where the body was found, because she can't trust the reader to put it together for themselves. Meanwhile Dalgleish her series detective remains as much an enigma as the female protagonist of a bad romance novel, and I start to suspect for the same reason: readers are expected to project themselves into his viewpoint, and so there can't be any rough edges to make that difficult.

And James has a sense of humour dash it all. If she didn't then this stuff might be easier going. But every once in a while she comes up with a gem like this interview with the victim's solicitor:

"Good morning, good morning. Please sit down, Commander. You come on tragic business. I don't think we have ever lost one of our clients by murder before."

The clerk coughed. It was just such a cough as Dalgliesh would have expected, inoffensive but discreetly minatory and not to be ignored.

"There was Sir James Cummins, sir, in 1923. He was shot by his neighbour, Captain Cartwright, because of the seduction of Mrs. Cartwright by Sir James, a grievance aggravated by some unpleasantness over fishing rights."

which just makes the rest of it harder to bear because I now know that she's choosing to write depressing-and-nasty.

As in The Black Tower, James seems more interested in writing a gloomy literary novel of horrible people than in telling a detective story. It's a very good gloomy literary novel of horrible people, but that form is not really to my taste. Still, I made it through Christianna Brand, who was certainly a lesser writer…

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Previous in series: The Black Tower | Series: Adam Dalgliesh

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