A classic whodunnit murder mystery set in a British ‘Upper-Class’ society, James – as is her wont – also delivers a great novel with life-like characters and a convoluted plot. One can barely contain the thrill and excitement as the writer pulls off a series of skins to bare the heart of the mystery.
It is a literary feat that the reader remains engrossed with the book even after the traditional appeals of a murder mystery are dispensed with rather early in the narrative. For once the clue of the missing Diary is established, one knows that the solution to the murder lies in Berowne’s home and it’s not difficult to identify the potential killer. Eventually the killer is unmasked but the novel continues for quite a stretch untangling the other affairs in the lives of the affected people. Quite unlike a commercial ‘whodunnit’ it is only Ms. James who has the panache to keep us hooked till the end.
The twin deaths of a Minister of Crown and Baronet Paul Berowne along with a vagabond character of Harry Mack in the vestry of an old Church shows a union in death of people so unlike each other in life. But the story shifts focus very soon on Berowne’s persona and life as it is rather plain that Mack’s death was incidental due to him being present at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is our favourite detective Adam Dalgliesh on the hunt again accompanied by Kate Miskin and Massingham. We are quickly introduced to a set of interesting characters around whom the story is set to revolve including the rich and privileged Lady Ursula Berowne (Mother), the beautiful Barbara Berowne (wife), the efficient and successful Dr. Stephen Lampart (family friend), the rash and aggressive Dominic Swayne (brother-in-law) and the rebellious Sarah Berowne (estranged daughter). A few more characters are the servants, acquaintances and colleagues of Sir Paul Berowne.
Dalgliesh too knew the man in passing and mulls over his persona as being the clue for the tragedy that unfolded. And frisson between people, the class differences in the British society, the human cost of losing ones privacy during the police investigation, the challenges faced by the police staff themselves are held up as vignettes for the reader to savor and acknowledge.
There are touching moments in the novel – Sarah Berowne feels genuine grief for her father although she rebelled against him and had a troubled transition to being an adult as she lost her mother in a car accident caused by her father and who then went on to marry a second time. Berowne’s mistress’, a talented professional bureaucrat, leads a faceless and secret life treasuring the transitory relationship she shared with him only to find that she bitterly misplaced her trust and she was way down at the bottom of his priorities. Lady Ursula Berowne comes across a person used to enjoying her privileges but even she has to reconcile with the sorrow of losing both her sons in tragic circumstances.
Kate Miskin’s brief journey and rise in the police force is well described. Born as an illegitimate daughter and having to grown up with her grandmother in the mean inner streets of the city have toughened her and she clambers her way up to secure status and comfort in the society. But she shares a troubled relationship with her granny and finds it difficult to reconcile herself to the ‘class differences’ that are entrenched in the society. Her final redemption is not without pain but it also brings closure to her life and she can move forward.
The transformation of Father Barnes from being a dejected failure to someone who can command a congregation is Ms. James’ tribute to shows us the depths of human ambition and how a brief encounter with power and authority can remake a man.
Sir Paul Berowne is the cause of the human drama that we see unfold and though we have sympathies for him, his layered personality leaves us a bit ambivalent and possibly offers the explanation about why he was deeply dissatisfied with his life and circumstances.
It is indeed a pet theme for Ms. James to point it out that happiness in life is a gift and not a right. And no matter how trying are your present circumstances, things will change for possibly the better and you need to apply yourself to see the change you hanker for. So as we leave, we note that most of the characters are keen to revive their muddled lives and aim to have better times in future. On such a positive note we can end the novel and feel a closure for ourselves as well.