RogerBW's Blog

A Taste For Death, P. D. James 07 November 2022

1986 detective fiction, seventh of James's novels of Inspector (now Commander) Adam Dalgliesh. A tramp, and an MP in the process of resigning, are both found in a church, their throats cut. Murder-suicide? Double murder? Anything to do with the anonymous letter the MP had recently received? Adam Dalgleish, in charge of a new unit dedicated to dealing with politically sensitive incidents, investigates.

And once more this is at least as much a gloomy literary novel of horrible people as it is a detective story. James's own snobbery is a constant consideration, and one can't help wondering where she thinks poor people ought to live and who should pay for it. (The answer to the first question, clearly, is "out of sight of anyone but each other".) She hates her rich people too, but some of them are at least allowed to display some taste rather than just being a constant unhappy drag on themselves and each other. As always, the authorial voice is absolutely certain.

Another of James's maggots recurs: everyone is obsessed with sex, and unhappy about it. They sleep with their girl/boyfriends, and feel trapped into marriage; they sleep with their spouses, and are unsatisfied; they take lovers, and are still unsatisfied; or they don't sleep with anyone, and are unhappy about that, consciously or otherwise. It never occurs to them that maybe the people who told them that sex should always be the most amazing thing ever, and the most important thing in their lives, were perhaps lying.

At this point it had been nine years since James's last Dalgliesh story, Death of an Expert Witness, during which she had published the stand-alone Innocent Blood and the second and last Cordelia Gray book, The Skull Beneath the Skin – which suggests to me that she was feeling in a rut with Dalgliesh. But this return is very much the detective as before, though he's blocked on the poetry; he has a new assistant, DI Kate Miskin, who came out of a housing estate but is apparently acceptable to James (and therefore to Dalgliesh), perhaps because she's succeeding at improving herself. Meanwhile Massingham returns to be pointlessly prejudiced against female officers. (There are also plenty of digs at Horrible Social Workers who, from all one might read here, exist solely to make life worse for everyone who falls into their power. One feels that they are probably also Socialists, and therefore Wrong.)

Once one notices that every time the narration mentions a room with a window we're told about the view from it, it's hard to stop noticing. At times James seems more interested in the houses than in the people, even if only as a way of casting light (sorry) on the people. Everyone worth knowing about owns, and recognises, works by great painters, and many of them listen to the same few recordings of the same few classical pieces that are clearly the only thing worth listening to at all.

As for the mystery itself: there's a young second wife, and her brother, and a mistress, and an estranged daughter, and various other hangers-on, as well as an array of other suspicious deaths, and nobody comes out of it looking good. An action-focused climax seems very much out of step with the bloodless and mannered style of the rest of the book.

Do not, in short, read this for the detective story; it's there, but it's mostly the skeleton on which James hangs the snobbery, prejudice and occasional beauty that she really wants to write about. I'm here for that beauty, but my word it can be a lot of work getting to it.

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Previous in series: Death of an Expert Witness | Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: Devices and Desires

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