Right, so we are back to the familiar settings for a P D James murder mystery – it stars the brooding poet cum detective from the Scotland Yard, Adam Dalgliesh, and it gives us a free run of a Nurse Training School, set up in a grotesque piece of architecture called ‘Nightingale House’.
We have a trademark James crime novel that gives us a great insight into the working of a Nursing School as an institution battling costs, people politics, cloistered lives, vicious gossip, blackmail, and lack of privacy. I am sure Ms. James was not being sardonic in setting all this up in an institution that is meant to be caring and recuperative in nature.
At the heart of it are obviously issues that plague institutions and Nursing is just yet another example of the same. Institutional demands on the 24/7 functions like nursing are obviously intrusive and insensitive to the demand for privacy and personal life by its inhabitants.There is simply no space to escape the claustrophobia induced by the communal life and people do develop their coping mechanisms to preserve their sanity.
In this instance we meet a supremely competent Matron, her devoted boon companion from the days of the yore, a hubris steeped surgeon having little regard for people, two nurses caught up in their own petty affairs, and a group of student nurses with varied personalities and temperament. A lot of human drama is afoot and couple of murders happen as a consequence of the same.
James delights us with a delicious narrative on the discordance felt by people when well-established perks disappear based on the recommendation of a faceless cost accountant. Based on the sound approach of optimizing costs the private and personalized dining rooms for different staff groups were replaced with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ centralized cafeteria. It would be regarded as a credit to human ingenuity that norms arose even in the new regime to accommodate a semblance of privacy and hierarchy that presided in the old regime. And in true style the senior medical staff including the surgeons managed to fight off the bean counters and retain their private dining rooms.
This is one of the earlier novels featuring Dalgliesh and his characterization is not as sharply etched as it becomes by the time we come to the latter novels. The signs are there though – his fastidiousness, demand for privacy, value judgement of people and preferences, a more nuanced approach to policing, his private struggles with the demands of the job etc. I guess the reinforcement done over a period of time by use of varying plots and positions makes us all the more demanding about his thoughts and actions.
Still Dalgliesh shows the core ruthlessness that is the demand of his job – he pushes people’s buttons ever so subtly that for example Sister Gearing doesn’t even realize the gentle manipulation she yields to and divulges a curious mixture of information and gossip.
James employs the tool of Detective Sergeant Masterson as a foil to Dalgliesh – he is shown to employ means and method to unravel things that would be regarded as crude and possibly even inefficient by Dalgliesh if he were only to know about them. James is pragmatic enough to let certain clues, even red herrings, to emerge from these techniques and thereby add more excitement to the story.
The murder mystery involving the death of two student nurses is satisfactorily resolved – the final twist in the tale is interesting but not very convincing. It does have a factor of novelty to be mentioned to its credit.