The story is straightforward, and the mystery unfolds with the right pace, and the right amount of suspense, but James is much more than a simple genre writer. Her characters are complex and well drawn, and while the story reads quickly as we try to guess who the killer is, it is the detail of James’ description, and the depth of her characterisation which makes this novel more than just a quick, engaging read.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Death in Holy Orders
by PD James
Penguin, April 2002
PD James’ latest novel arrived in my mailbox with the highest accolades – a literary mystery. Strongly recommended to me by a like minded reading friend after my offhand dismissal, I agreed to give it a try. So what is a literary mystery, and is Death in Holy Orders it? Certainly the plot of the book follows that of a typical mystery. It opens with a death, and presents a problem. Margaret Munroe, the woman who discovers our first dead body is murdered. More murders occur, and we follow James’ famous detective Commander Dalgliesh as he uncovers the clues, solves the murder, and finds the killer. The story is straightforward, and the mystery unfolds with the right pace, and the right amount of suspense, but James is much more than a simple genre writer. Her characters are complex and well drawn, and while the story reads quickly as we try to guess who the killer is, it is the detail of James’ description, and the depth of her characterisation which makes this novel more than just a quick, engaging read.
Dalgliesh is a detective on par with Chesterton’s Father Brown. He has his own secrets, and his own personal tragedy, but his dedication to the solving of crime is a kind of obsession, as is his search for meaning and truth, along with his personal integrity. As he is also a continuing character in James’ work, following on from two sets of Dalgliesh trilogies, his development is one which regular readers will enjoy following. Those new to the Commander, will find him to be very engaging, and although his published works of poetry is only hinted at in this novel, his literary doublelife, as well as the impact of his poetic approach to his detective work creates the kind of depth and urbanity which lends richness to his detective work. Dalgliesh is always probing at the meaning of words, looking for the “deeper repugnance”, or intuitively playing out scenes in his head prior to them happening. He judges his own words, “their banality, their inadequacy”, and gives into the pain of his victims, without becoming overly sentimental.
Other characters are similarly well drawn, such as Raphael Arbuthnot, “a slightly dissolute Greek god,” who is “too attractive for his own good”. His sad desperation and healthy pride make him a prime suspect. There are also the slightly comical fathers, who stand to become very rich when St Anselm, the college where this novel is set, is closed; the visiting scholars Emma and Gregory; the handyman Eric Surtees and his sister, and the other policeman Kate and Piers. Each character is deftly and sparingly drawn, so that the reader begins to see their strengths and weaknesses as realistic, and anticipate what they will do next in much the same way that Dalgliesh does. Most of the characters have something to hide – some secret or hidden guilt, which adds a complexity to the story, and also raises the larger issue of innocence and guilt, and how we judge our fellow man. There is Father John Betterton’s sexual misconduct, Archbishop Crampton’s wife’s suspicious suicide, Yarwood’s blackouts and depression, Stanford’s attempt at theft, and the mystery of the St Anselm Papyrus. While the case of “whodunnit” can be solved, the bigger cases of what truth is, is more complicated, and in the end, unsolvable, since it lies at the heart of what it means to be a human being.
Another thing which sets this book apart from purely genre oriented mysteries is the detail. PD James takes the time to describe the sumptuous setting of St Anselms in minutia:
The refectory faced south and was almost a replica in size and style of the library with the same barrelled roof and an equal number of high narrow windows, although these were devoid of figurative coloured glass and held instead panes of delicate pale green with a design of grapes and vine leaves.
The description is presented as if through an observer’s eye, and is therefore full of interest, as we discover St Anselms, or the individual characters at different points of time, or different times of the day. Nothing ever appears gratuitous, nor is the reader tempted to skim the description, as James’ narrative style takes you directly into the minds of the characters, and we discover the scenes, and settings as the characters do. With each page we discover more about the detail of St Anselms history, about the history of the Church of England, and about the history of our characters through the minute details of our observations – those things we find when we look around a room.
There is also humour. James pokes fun at herself by having the fathers read classic detective fiction, including Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. At one point Gregory says “Without that visual impact of horror murder is surely an atavistic frisson, more Agatha Christie than real.” When Sergeant Kate Miskin suggests a play on words between Leeks and a leak, Piers replies:
“For God’s sake, Kate, that’s pure Agatha Christie!”
Dalgliesh is a literary detective, and his rather good Eliot style poetry is quoted several times in the book. Then there is Sargent Kate Miskin’s mental note about the literary detective:
Oh God, thought Kate, first AD and his poetry, then Piers who knows about Richard Hooker, and now Robbins who reads Henry James! Why can’t they send me a sergeant whose idea of a literary challenge is reading Jeffrey Archer
Despite the fun, James is not afraid to raise the kind of big questions, normally found in great literature. There is a subtle theme running through the book on elitism versus commonism, as typified by Archbishop Crampton’s valid sounding arguments against the elitism of St Anselm versus Father Sebastian’s equally valid arguments for it. There is also the notion of innocence, guilt, and the nature of truth. The murderer is clearly guilty, but there are many other forms of guilt, and many other crimes, some of which aren’t illegal. Karen Surtees’ crimes can be justified, and Dalgliesh follows her arguments in his mind, but surely her part in the events at St Anselm can’t be justified away on questions of legality. The murderer himself states that he expects he would have been acquitted – he has middle class respectability, and an excellent lawyer. Again, this raises some interesting questions about justice, and about truth. Another interesting question which is raised is the nature of happiness. The novel ends with Dalgliesh’s saying: “Given the state of three-quarters of the world’s poor, wouldn’t you say that unhappiness would be a perverse indulgence?” As a by-product of the murder investigation, many people have to find out things which are painful, and liable to cause unhappiness, and we are faced with questions about the search for truth versus the search for happiness. Indeed, Death in Holy Orders provides much for the reader to think about, long after the murder has been solved.
For those not accustomed to the intense pace of a mystery novel, but insistent that the book they read be literary only, PD James’ Death in Holy Orders will prove to be a treat. It contains all of the suspense, and plot, of a tightly crafted mystery, coupled with a linguistic awareness, and literary capability that puts it on par with the best literary fiction.
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