Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

From the back cover:
P. D. James draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.

It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up to the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

When I learned about this book on NPR, I was torn between trepidation and mad curiosity. The latter, as you can see, won out, mostly because I am a huge fan of P. D. James and if figured that if anyone could treat Austen’s material with respect, she could. And, indeed, her treatment of these beloved characters did not give any offense, but neither did it give anything near the delight inspired by Austen’s original work.

First, a brief summary of the plot. It is Autumn 1803. Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married for six years and have two sons. On the eve of the annual ball at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s willful sister Lydia shows up unannounced (and uninvited), freaking out because she and the coachman heard gunshots soon after her no-good husband Wickham went into the woods after his friend, Captain Denny. A search party finds a drunken Wickham with Denny’s body, at which point he utters words to the effect of, “It’s my fault. He was my only friend, and I have killed him.” The local magistrate conducts his inquiries, there is a formal inquest, there is a trial, and then the full story is revealed.

As a Pride and Prejudice continuation, the book is not odious. It is, however, lacking any of Austen’s sparkle. Events leave Elizabeth and Darcy little time to be alone together, except at the very end, where James tacks on an epilogue in which Darcy, after six years, suddenly apologizes for some of his conduct in the original novel. It makes me wonder whether James believes readers could not surmise that Darcy would feel regret over his more snooty actions without spelling it out. Gone too are Austen’s sly and thoughtful observations upon society, except for one brief instance wherein chronic invalids are suddenly recovered sufficiently to attend church in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pemberley residents.

The result, therefore, is a book that is dreadfully dull. I was relieved to see that Elizabeth and Darcy do not suddenly become sleuths, but found the revelation of what really happened in the woodland to be rather vague and unsatisfying. While I cannot condemn the book for any particular sin, about the only praise I can muster is that James does provide some interesting fates for various characters and proposes an intriguing complication regarding Wickham’s attempted elopement with Georgiana Darcy.

Is it worth reading? No, not really. But I doubt anyone will feel the urge to hurl the book across the room in disgust, either.

The Private Patient by P. D. James: B

Book description:
In James’s stellar fourteenth Adam Dalgliesh mystery, the charismatic police commander knows the case of Rhoda Gradwyn, a 47-year-old journalist murdered soon after undergoing the removal of an old disfiguring scar at a private plastic surgery clinic in Dorset, may be his last. Dalgliesh probes the convoluted tangle of motives and hidden desires that swirl around the clinic, Cheverell Manor, and its grimly fascinating suspects in the death of Gradwyn, herself a stalker of minds driven by her lifelong passion for rooting out the truth people would prefer left unknown and then selling it for money.

The Private Patient isn’t bad—I think it’d be impossible for P. D. James to write a bad novel—but it isn’t very gripping. It’s written in her usual style, very descriptive of setting, even down to the retirement home accomodations of an obscure family solicitor, and spending a lot of time with the victim and her environs before the crime actually takes place. Like most of James’ novels, this one involves a small institution of some kind with a precarious financial future, and a limited cast of subjects connected with it.

Perhaps I’m a bit jaded, but I’d expected a few more twists and turns out of this. There’s one point, quite near the end, but not near enough that it seemed a culprit should really be revealed, when all evidence seemed to point to one person. “Ah,” I reasoned, “this person is the red herring. We will now get the twist ending when it will turn out to have been Y instead of X!” Except all that happens is that X commits a completely unnecessary additional act of violence and gets found out, leaving me going, “Oh. It was X. Huh.”

Much like the previous book, The Lighthouse, this could possibly be the last in the Dalgleish series. The whole reason Dalgleish’s squad is on the case in the first place is because a wealthy client of the clinic got her politically connected hubby to pull some strings. This rankles with Dalgleish quite a lot, as one might imagine, and the increasing politicization of his squad, along with the possibility that it will be eliminated in forthcoming budget cuts, makes him ponder retirement. The door’s still open, however, as the novel ends without Dalgleish making a firm decision in either way.

If this is the last novel, I’ll be slightly disappointed in the ending, which doesn’t focus on him at all. Instead, we get an epilogue about those still at the clinic as well as an attendee’s view of Dalgleish’s wedding. Then again, perhaps this slipping out of the limelight and into quiet, happy domesticity exactly parallels Dalgleish’s fate. That’d be nice.

Innocent Blood by P. D. James: B

From the back cover:
Philippa Palfrey, adopted as a child, exercises her legal right to apply for a copy of her birth certificate when she becomes eighteen. Although she has always had a fantasy of being the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic father and now dead mother, she soon learns the shocking truth about her parents—and finds that her mother is about to be released from prison.

With this knowledge, Philippa moves into an alien world that is to prove more dangerous and terrifying than any she could imagine. For there is someone else interested in her mother’s release—someone who has dedicated his life to seeking out and destroying her.

Innocent Blood is rather odd. The story is intellectually interesting, but not much beyond that. The characters aren’t exactly unlikable, but they’re very aloof and remote. By the time they experience something provoking a powerful emotional response, it’s hard to care very much.

Not a lot happens until the last hundred pages or so, where the man with a grudge gets closer to exacting his revenge. I was curious to see whether he’d succeed but again, not very invested in the fates of the characters. I liked how revelations about Philippa’s adoption precipitated the events of the novel’s conclusion.

The writing is quintessential James, complete with thoughtful insights and the exceptionally vivid physical descriptions of the characters that I love so much. I liked it, but I’m not sure whether I’d reread it. I don’t rule it out.

The Children of Men by P. D. James: B-

From the back cover:
The human race faces extinction. It is annihilation brought not by disease or nuclear war, not by crashing meteorites or colliding stars. Men and women have ceased, simply, to procreate. In 1994, sperm counts hit zero; pediatrics wards were rapidly and permanently depleted. Overnight, it seemed, the human race had lost its power to breed.

Now, 25 years later, a pervasive lethargy blankets the world. In Britain, one man has set himself up as “Warden,” and as his power grows, morality and hope deteriorate. The Warden’s cousin, the insular and aloof Theo Faron, is shocked out of his apathy when he is approached by a group of dissidents who call themselves The Five Fishes.

Amused and irritated by these amateurish rebels, Faron is drawn into their fragile circle in spite of himself. What they offer him could be the only future he’s got.

The Children of Men starts off promisingly. Theo (not at all Clive Owen-y) isn’t a particularly likeable protagonist, but he’s interesting enough in his cold detachment. Book One relates to his contact with the dissidents, his taking notice of what’s been going on around him, and his unsuccessful attempt to compel the Warden to do something about their concerns.

The implications of a world without children are chillingly explored—no schools, no playgrounds, children existing only as images and voices on recorded media. After humanity dies out, the buildings will sit idle until reclaimed by nature, and no one will ever again read the books. All of the world-building was excellent and thought-provoking.

Book Two begins six months later. The group has been discovered and seeks Theo’s help once again. The novel quickly degenerates into a description of their flight to evade capture. An interminable series of cars and concealing copses ensues. By the time the book dragged itself to a disappointing (but possibly ominous) conclusion, my primary feeling was relief.

I’ve also got a non-plot-related complaint. I’m definitely a fan of P. D. James’ writing style, but I didn’t care for the alternating first and third person narration she employed here. My guess is that this was done because Theo eventually stops writing in his journal and the rest of the story needs to be told, but it certainly doesn’t add anything to the experience.

Ultimately, the book is decent reading, if only for the ideas presented. I plan to see the movie at some point, since I suspect they culled the good bits and eschewed the monotonous ones.

The Lighthouse by P. D. James: A-

From the back cover:
Combe Island off the Cornish coast of England has a bloodstained history of piracy and cruelty. Owned for centuries by the same family, it now serves as a place where over-stressed men and women in positions of high authority can come to find serenity in conditions of guaranteed security. But when one of its distinguished visitors is found hanging from Combe’s famous lighthouse, an apparent murder victim, the peace of the island is shattered.

What an improvement over The Murder Room. Although the mystery is a good one, and the atmosphere of the island (both threatening and peaceful) is skillfully rendered, it’s the development of the members of the investigative squad that I liked best.

I still don’t completely buy Dalgliesh’s relationship, though I cannot precisely say why. I did love Inspector Miskin’s reaction to it, however, and the thoughts and decisions it prompted her to consider and to make. When Dalgliesh is sidelined by illness, responsibility for the case shifts to his team, and that’s where things truly take off. As Miskin takes up the challenge of the lead role in the investigation, I was instantly more invested for her own personal and professional sake. Learning more about the personality and abilities of Sergeant Benton-Smith was also a boon.

The solution to the mystery is rather lackluster, bearing too much in common with another recent book in the series. I would’ve been more put out except for the fact that the novel seems to clearly be about the investigators, and not the crime.

It seems possible this might be the final Dalgliesh novel, with the man himself poised on the threshold of marriage, Kate with renewed spirit and new possibilities of her own, and Benton-Smith fitting in with the group and establishing himself as someone who’ll go places. If this is the end, then I’d be very satisfied.

The Murder Room by P. D. James: B+

From the front flap:
The Dupayne, a small private museum on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath devoted to the interwar years 1919-39, is in turmoil. The trustees—the three children of the museum founder, old Max Dupayne—are bitterly at odds over whether it should be closed. Then one of them is brutally murdered, and what seemed to be no more than a family dispute erupts into horror. For even as Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate the first killing, a second corpse is discovered. Clearly, someone at the Dupayne is prepared to kill, and kill again.

The case is fraught with danger and complexity from the outset, not least because of the range of possible suspects—and victims. And still more sinister, the murders appear to echo the notorious crimes of the past featured in one of the museum’s most popular galleries, the Murder Room.

Despite containing my absolute favorite of all the characters Dalgliesh has encountered in his investigations, The Murder Room was a bit of a disappointment after the previous two books, which were both excellent. I’m not sure exactly what about it failed to engage. True, it features another “institution on the verge of closure,” but it it isn’t derivative. It’s a quick read with a solid story and, as I mentioned, it includes Tally Clutton, who is an awesome character. She reminds me of my Grandma and what I might be like as an older woman.

Maybe it’s the fact that, for the first time, I actually had sussed out the identity of the culprit and found it surprisingly easy to do because of one rather glaring clue. Or perhaps it was all the telling without showing going on regarding Dalgliesh’s personal life. It isn’t that it was implausible, but it wasn’t presented in a way that had me fully convinced.

Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James: A

From the back cover:
On the East Anglican seacoast a small theological college hangs precariously on an eroding shoreline and an equally precarious future. Then, the body of a student is found buried in the sand, and the boy’s influential father demands that Scotland Yard investigate. Adam Dalgliesh, the son of a parson, once spent happy summers at the school. A detective who loves poetry, a man who has known loss and discovery, Dalgliesh is the perfect candidate to look for the truth in a remote, rarified community of the faithful—and the frightened. For when one death leads to another, Dalgliesh finds himself steeped in a world of good and evil, of stifled passions and hidden pasts, where someone has cause not just to commit one crime, but to begin an unholy order of murder…

Every so often, there’s a book in this series where Dalgliesh goes off on holiday to Suffolk or some other coastal surroundings and does a bit of unofficial investigating. Although his subordinates are well-defined and interesting characters, I do tend to prefer the books that feature more of his point-of-view, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I liked this one very much.

Having read so many books by P. D. James, it’s impossible not to spot the familiar tropes that appear in her stories. Sometimes I wonder if these elements are tossed into a hat and withdrawn at random. Most notably here are the secluded coastal community (like in The Black Tower) and the institution threatened with possible closure or substantial and unwelcome change (Original Sin). It’s a little irritating, but the result is so satisfying that it’s hard to be strongly annoyed by it. There are certainly enough variations to keep anything from being predictable.

The plot is very tidily structured, with revelations coming about logically and frequently enough that there aren’t any lulls. With the extra bits of introspection into Dalgliesh’s personality and not quite so much focus on random potential suspects, I think this would be a very good place to start for someone interested in getting into the series and getting to know its main character.

A Certain Justice by P. D. James: A

Book description:
Venetia Aldridge is a criminal lawyer of large talents and small personal charm, working at a venerable London firm. As she tries to save a young lower-class tough who is accused of murdering his prostitute aunt, it is revealed that she is in a position to ruin a number of professional lives, and is of precisely the temperament to do it. When she is found dead—discovered in her locked chambers in a particularly gruesome tableau—Dalgliesh guides his staff through the interviews that unweave the tangled web of multiple deceit and mixed motive.

This was the best P. D. James I have read in a long time. I’m actually kind of hard-pressed to think of which was last this good. A Taste for Death, perhaps? It had a flawed but admirable victim, just the right amount of small little clues that one forgets until the end when they suddenly make sense, a mystery that one didn’t even know was a mystery ’til it was solved, much more Dalgliesh point-of-view than her last effort, and some new character types that reminded me a lot of Ruth Rendell’s A Sight for Sore Eyes (in a good way). On top of that, there’s thoughtful commentary on the English justice system and the burden of proof.

I would even consider giving the book an A+ were it not for the fact that there are a few obvious similarities to Original Sin, the book immediately preceding this one in the series. Some peculiarities about the condition of the body, the speculation it provokes, the method to narrow time of death, and one character’s possible motive all have parallels in the earlier work. They are used to much better effect here, however, and are not so crucial as to render the entire novel in any way derivative.

Although there are references to some backstory with Dalgliesh and his team, I think this would do alright as a stand-alone, and exhibits some of James’ finest storytelling.

Original Sin by P. D. James: B+

From the inside flappydoodle:
Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team are confronted with a puzzle of baffling complexity. A murder has taken place in the offices of the Peverell Press, a venerable London publishing house located in a dramatic mock-Venetian palace on the Thames. The victim is Gerard Etienne, the brilliant but ruthless new managing director, who had vowed to restore the firm’s fortunes. Etienne was clearly a man with enemies—a discarded mistress, a rejected and humiliated author, and rebellious colleagues, one of whom apparently killed herself a short time before. Yet Etienne’s death, which occurred under bizarre circumstances, is for Dalgliesh only the beginning of the mystery, as he desperately pursues the search for a killer prepared to strike again and again.

I wouldn’t rank this as one of P. D. James’ best. The writing and characterization are excellent as always, but I had terrible trouble getting into the story at first, on account of her “let’s spend some time on the victim and each suspect before the crime occurs” approach. She’s used this in at least one previous novel that I can recall and I don’t dislike it, necessarily, but in this case it made for slow going. A revelation at the post-mortem provided a much needed injection of excitement, thankfully, and the second half went by much more swiftly.

I was a little disappointed in the conclusion of the case, both so far as motive and some subsequent events were concerned. I am also very confused about the timeline of these novels. Each seems to be more or less set in the year that it was published, but Dalgliesh appears to be rather consistently in his late forties/early fifties. One character states it’s been nine months since an event that occurred two books ago, which means the events of the immediately preceding book, Devices and Desires, took place only weeks before this one. Perhaps I should give up trying to puzzle this out exactly, but it’s irksome when everything else is so tidily done.

The Skull Beneath the Skin by P. D. James: A-

From the back cover:
An intriguing assignment, Cordelia Gray thought, and not a particularly arduous one. The poison pen messages to Clarissa Lyle were to be stopped—or at least deflected—until after the performance of The Duchess of Malfi at Ambrose Gorringe’s private theatre on Courcy Island. It soon becomes apparent however that Clarissa Lyle’s enemy is on the island with her, and Cordelia finds herself trapped in an atmosphere of fear and violence—a violence that is to culminate in a brutal murder…

I really liked the vast majority of The Skull Beneath the Skin. The atmosphere is similar to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in that a limited number of suspects are staying together on an isolated island, complete with a married pair of somewhat eccentric servants. There were enough creepy or mysterious details to keep the plot moving interestingly, and the characters were well fleshed out, precisely as one would expect from P. D. James. Plus, mysteries with just a few possible killers with whom the protagonist must continue to associate after the act are fun.

Some time after said brutal murder occurs, the narrative focus shifts away from Cordelia to that of the detectives from the town on shore who’ve come to investigate. It’s interesting to learn some details from their interviews, and also to see the way in which they view Cordelia, but I found it a little odd that the protagonist should be absent for such a significant period of time. Eventually, she does regain the spotlight.

I found the whole sequence of events in the conclusion to be somewhat disappointing. A side trip for more nuggets of information bogs down the story, and then some elements of what follows are predictable, though I admit to being surprised by others. It’s not a poor ending, exactly, but for something that started so strongly it’s a bit anticlimactic.