Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tea and Murder: My Review of P.D. James' "Death in Holy Orders"

 It was Father Martin's idea that I should write an account of how I found the body.
Death in Holy Orders, P.D. James, pp. 3

When the body of a young ordinand, Ronald Treeves, turns up buried in a sandy bank on the Suffolk coast near isolated St. Anselm's, a High Anglican theological college, it's unclear whether his death was an accident, suicide or murder. The mystery deepens a few days later when someone suffocates Margaret Munroe, a retired nurse with a bad heart, because she remembers an event 12 years earlier that could have some bearing on whatever's amiss at St. Anselm's. Enter Dalgliesh at the behest of Ronald's father, Sir Alred, who's received an anonymous note suggesting foul play in his son's death.

It isn't long before another death occurs, and this time it's clearly murder: late one night in the chapel, somebody bashes in the head of Archdeacon Crampton, a hard-nosed outsider who wanted to close St. Anselm's. Dalgliesh and his investigative team examine the complicated motives of a host of suspects resident at the college, mostly ordinands and priests, slowly unveiling the connections among the various deaths. Illegitimacy, incest, a secret marriage, a missing cloak and a valuable altar triptych are just some of the ingredients in a case as contrived as any Golden Age classic but presented with such masterful ease and conviction that even the most skeptical readers will suspend disbelief.

            I have a confession: This is my first P.D. James novel. 

            I know, I know – how could this be!? I mean, it’s British and a detective novel … and such a critically acclaimed series! With such an interesting leading man!

            It was a sad truth – that I hadn’t read anything AdamDagliesh, but now that sad truth has been rectified and I have come to the feast that is James’ detective world.

            Suffice to say: I liked it

           The scene is set in a North England seminary school, isolated and old, sitting atop a cliff with a raging, cold sea all around them. Our hero, Adam Dagliesh, has a prior history – having spent a summer or two there as a child. The school itself is in a precarious situation: the Church of England is trying to make a better image for itself, and that means that older schools who still practice antiquated methods – like Greek lessons, are on the chopping block. I found this interesting since, I would generally agree with the sentiments of the Church of England – I am not in favour of antiquated religious practices that are sexist, racist, etc. However, I found myself rooting for the Fathers in this one. Not an entirely comfortable feeling …

            In this throwback to gothic hilltop houses in the crashing sea, there is – not ironically – a mysterious death: an ordinand is found beneath the cliffs, half buried in the sand, his clothes neatly folded next to him, the tide just barely licking the soles of his feet. The woman who finds him is then found dead herself – and this is where Dagliesh comes in. The ordinand’s rich adopted father wants another inquest – and he doesn’t trust the locals, he wants someone from Scotland Yard to tick all the boxes.

            A broken and slightly somber Dagliesh agrees to take the case, his vacation taking him up to that area anyway, and is on his way. He assumes this will be rather open and shut – he will ask a few questions, make a few notes and then return to London, fulfilling a great political favour to his employment. He brings to the school his own memories of summers long past – and the first part of the novel are filled with his own notations at what has changed. These personal observations are more of a metaphor for the evolution of the Church of England itself, the fall from innocence and freedom to secrets that threaten to come apart at the seams. It’s a criticism of the system without being a harsh criticism – it seems to imply that the bad parts of the system are good intentions gone bad – something that is personified in my favourite ordinand, Rafael.

              The mystery itself is pretty straightforward, though the dramatic irony makes it nearly impossible not to throw the book across the room, jump on the couch and yell to Dagliesh that the deaths are all connected! Dramatic irony is a tool that – when used properly – can bring a reader to their knees with the knowledge of what is to come. It heightens the suspense, adds to the thrill – and James does it so effortlessly that I frequently found myself frustrated by the characters, thinking to myself, “Surely, they are joking – they must know …”.    

                James weaves an incredibly complicated and well thought out mystery story. A wealth of characters stand in line for scrutiny – both Dagliesh’s and the Reader’s – and the words are meticulously chosen – each word a possible clue. Going through it was an exercise in constraint – my revolving prime suspect constantly at mind, changing with a word or inflection. It was a well-built roster of characters that intrigued and fascinated me.  

                All in all, I enjoyed my first Dagliesh mystery – and I enjoyed Dagliesh. I think his emotional distance and rigid moral code  compliment his work, and I think that he is an attractive man in a way that only intellectual older (fictional) men can be. He was complicated and yet has=d a straight forward air I appreciated. The mystery itself was complicated enough that I got lost in the details – a mercy, since I couldn’t figure out with any degree of certainty who I thought the killer was – too many juicy suspects! 

                Will definitely be reading the whole of the series now!

 Read this if you liked:
  • Agatha Christie's many many books

Next to Review: The Woods by Harlan Coben

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