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 demonstrating 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.

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

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

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 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 2019 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life kickstarter learn to play leaving earth linux mecha men with beards museum mystery naval non-fiction one for the brow opera perl perl weekly challenge 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