RogerBW's Blog

The Black Tower, P. D. James 05 March 2019

1975 detective fiction, fifth of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. After a medical scare and a hospital stay, Dalgleish visits an old friend to recuperate – only to find that the friend has died suddenly.

But of course this is not going to be a mere murder mystery; this is James, after all. Dalgleish has believed that he was going to die, and in part as a result of that is planning to retire from the police.

It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy. Now he had to lay hold of them again and believe that they were important, at least to himself. He doubted whether he would ever again believe them important to other people.

But first he needs to get back into shape, and so a letter from one his father's old curates asking for professional advice is a good excuse to go and spend some time on the Dorset coast.

It's the setting that's most important here, Toynton Grange, "a private home for the young disabled" (i.e. not the geriatric sort), and while I always try to read with a historical mindset I couldn't help but be struck by how much attitudes have changed here (including the vital shift in language, hated by the sort of person who likes to rant about political correctness, from "the disabled" to "disabled people"). These broken bodies are simply warehoused until they have the decency to die, perhaps given some makework if they want it and are capable, but confined in a tiny stultifying community with minimal access to the outside world until it's not even surprising that there might be murder done. The only wonder is that it took so long.

"Sex is for the healthy. I know that the disabled are supposed to have feelings like the rest of us but you'd think that they'd put that sort of thing behind them when they get to the wheelchair stage."

This particular one is worse than the generic faceless institution, because it's run privately, by someone who's had his own miracle (at Lourdes, no less) and has rebuilt his life as a result; indeed he still runs pilgrimages to Lourdes twice a year for the inmates.

One must admit that the book is very slow, and apart from Dalgleish entirely lacking in sympathetic characters; even those with moments of pleasantness are horrible in some other respect, which is a fault I had thought James was starting to grow out of. It doesn't help that very few people get a proper introduction, and the reader would be well advised to keep a crib of characters, especially of who's a patient and who's staff, and what their full names are. There are more deaths, and it becomes increasingly clear that at least some of them must be murder.

The real oddity to me is the explanation of it all; it's mostly consistent with the evidence that's been revealed, but it's entirely out of tune with the atmosphere of the book, as is the unexpected extended action sequence (relying on assumption and coincidence) that follows its revelation. This feels almost as though it were grafted on from a different book by another writer, and I wonder whether James simply lost interest at the end and filled in with standard Detective Stuff.

And yet she has a sense of humour; she's just carefully not using it most of the time, and I found myself grasping at the straws of levity between great gobs of Serious Business.

"My dear husband got through money very quickly. It wasn't women, I'm glad to say. It was horses. They're just as expensive and even more unpredictable but a less humiliating rival for a wife. And, unlike another woman, you can at least be glad when they win."

I think it's fair to admire James's ventures into Serious Literature but deplore the relative lack of entertainment (which is one of the reasons I read a detective story) at the same time. Followed by Death of an Expert Witness.

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Previous in series: Shroud for a Nightingale | Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: Death of an Expert Witness

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