RogerBW's Blog

The Skull Beneath the Skin, P. D. James 27 August 2022

1982 detective fiction, second and last of James's novels of Cordelia Gray, private investigator. The fading actress Clarissa Lisle has been getting subtle threats against her life; Cordelia's employed by her (fourth) husband to look into it. This will not end well.

Of course it won't; this is a James book, and the only virtue in nobody going away happy is that one wouldn't want happiness for most of the characters anyway. But while things do rather pick up once the action moves to the isolated castle that's the primary setting, James's usual obsessions have to be got through first. It's not class prejudice exactly, as much as a firm assurance that anyone who doesn't do things exactly the way she does them (i.e. the right way) is wrong, and stupid, and ought to know better. It's clear, for example, that women who don't have dress sense or beauty shouldn't try to look pretty; they should instead just vanish from sight. Of course this applies to books too.

You could, she supposed, call it a crime novel with a difference, the difference being that there had been more sex, normal and abnormal, than detection and that the book had attempted with some success to combine the popular family saga with the mystery. The writing style had been nicely judged for the mass market, neither good enough to jeopardize popular appeal nor bad enough to make people ashamed of being seen reading it in public.

And furniture.

[…] the store in Kilburn which sold cheap plywood furniture on hire purchase to customers too ignorant to know when they were being cheated or too proud in their poverty to rummage round the street markets and buy good solid oak, second-hand. The stuff he dazzled them with, cocktail cabinets, room dividers, ornate suites would fall or be kicked to pieces long before they'd finished paying for it.

And everything else. But once the obligatory ranting is out of the way, things perk up a bit; the writing, granted, exists mostly to show off how horrible all the characters are, presumably in case one might accidentally find oneself caring about what happened to them. Get over that hump, and it's quite fun: grisly murder, no obvious motive (but plenty of people who disliked the victim quite a lot), and everyone's interlocking obsessions and neuroses and deceptions will bring at least some of them to a bad end.

Yes, yes, Cordelia's quite wet, and everyone's attitudes are more 1950s than 1970s. But there's an isolated house and a sinister butler, and amateur theatricals have a significant place in the plot, in a way that makes it clear that James is deliberately playing with the toolbox of pre-war mysteries, and with some respect rather than just tipping it out onto the floor. Yes, James spends long paragraphs on the decoration of a room or people being pointlessly vile to each other, but they are at least well-written paragraphs, and the mystery even makes some degree of sense even though all the necessary clues are held back to the last possible moment. I don't suppose I shall ever be a James fan, but I ended up enjoying this much more than I thought I should from the early chapters.

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Previous in series: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman | Series: Cordelia Grey

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