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.

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Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: A Mind To Murder

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