The Magazine

Murder Most British

P.D. James strikes again.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By JON L. BREEN
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The Murder Room

by P.D. James

Knopf, 415 pp., $25.95

THE SETTING for "The Murder Room," P.D. James's thirteenth novel about Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh, could hardly be more appropriate: a museum devoted to Great Britain between the world wars. With her unapologetic embrace of hallowed detective-story conventions, James is the strongest contemporary link to that era's traditional British detective fiction.

Now Baroness James of Holland Park, Phyllis Dorothy James was a hospital administrative assistant when her first novel, a country-house whodunit called "Cover Her Face," was published in Britain in 1962. Classical British detective fiction was at a low ebb. A few of the golden-age masters were still in business--Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake--but new talent was sparse, and the ascendant genre for popular fiction was the spy novel. So resistant were publishers to old-fashioned detection that James's first novel would not see publication in America until 1966.

James's detective Dalgliesh is a policeman and a published poet--a throwback to such literate cops as Marsh's Roderick Alleyn and Innes's John Appleby. While his cases hold fast to such classical traditions as fairly given clues and surprising murderers, James was determined to bring more reality to the pattern, emphasizing deeper characterization, recognition of the real cost of murder on the lives of the survivors, and authentic forensic detail. (Her awareness of these matters was facilitated by her administrative jobs in Britain's Home Office between 1968 and her retirement in 1979.)

And what makes James so interesting is that she sees no contradiction in taking serious explorations of character and society, and setting them against delightfully artificial plots, rich in situations like the one that begins the 1967 "Unnatural Causes:" the handless corpse of a mystery writer found floating in a boat off the East Anglian coast, a situation supposedly suggested to the victim for one of his novels. Or the bizarre opening of the 1986 "A Taste for Death:" two bodies, one a derelict and the other a minister of the crown, found bloodily murdered in a London church vestry.

After the first four Dalgliesh cases, James delighted feminists with the introduction of female private eye Cordelia Gray in "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" (1973), with Dalgliesh in a secondary role. Gray is on her own in the theatrical mystery "The Skull Beneath the Skin" (1982), but James doubts in her diary-cum-autobiography "Time to Be in Earnest" (2000) that she will ever return to the character, having lost her to British television, which violated the author's concept of Cordelia by saddling her with an unwed pregnancy. James has confined her subsequent fiction to the Dalgliesh saga with two notable exceptions: her breakout bestseller "Innocent Blood" (1980), an unconventional detective novel about a young woman searching for her birth parents, and the science-fictional "The Children of Men" (1993), depicting a near-future world where the human race has stopped reproducing itself.

James specializes in minutely detailed institutional backgrounds: a psychiatric clinic in "A Mind to Murder" (1967), a training school for nurses in "Shroud for a Nightingale" (1971), a home for the disabled in "The Black Tower" (1975), a forensic science laboratory in "Death of an Expert Witness" (1977), a nuclear power plant in "Devices and Desires" (1989), a centuries-old London publishing house in "Original Sin" (1995), a barristers' chambers in "A Certain Justice" (1997), and a theological college in "Death in Holy Orders" (2001). Usually the institutions are threatened from without or within, and the response of the personnel drives the plot.

Her new novel, "The Murder Room," follows this formula. The room of the title is an exhibition room in the small, family-run Dupayne Museum, which houses items from classic murder cases. For the museum to continue, all three children of the departed founder must sign the new lease. Elder brother Marcus, a recently retired government functionary, and sister Caroline, partner in a posh finishing school, have differing agendas for the museum but want to preserve it. Younger brother Neville, a psychiatrist who scorns dwelling on the past and resents his late father, is just as determined to withhold his signature and force the museum's closure. Thus, he becomes the obvious candidate for murder victim. And when his Jaguar and what may be his charred body are found burnt in the museum's garage, the circumstances echo one of the crimes the Murder Room commemorates. (The reader must ponder whether the charred body found in the car will defy detective-fiction convention by proving actually to be who it is presumed to be.)