Written well over fifty years ago, the murder mystery is the first novel written by P D James and features her favourite detective Adam Dalgliesh. It is a promising start but obviously is not her best book. Over the years we have grown to love the character of Dalgliesh but herein there is not much of a hint of the iconic character in the making.
Instead we have a proper tribute to a murder mystery novel à la Agatha Christie and Poirot. It just runs over 250 pages, features the landed gentry in a village setting and Dalgliesh brings about the final dénouement by assembling the family council and then revealing the murderer.
Sally Jupp, the apparently ‘unwed’ mother and a maid working at Martingale (the family seat of the Maxies), is found murdered in her bed behind a locked door and an open window. The night before she had mischievously announced much to the chagrin of the family the heir apparent, Stephen Maxie, had proposed marriage to her. The annual village fete had just got over and provided an opportunity for many strangers to complicate the murder scene. Talk about reviving memories of vintage Agatha Christie novels.
The village is as provincial as ever and Sally Jupp’s mischievous character attracts strong reactions : Stephen believes himself to be in love with her, Stephen’s sister, Deborah, just hates her as does Catherine who fancies herself to be Stephen’s fiancée. As if this were not enough, Martha the housekeeper hates her guts and Sally was always estranged from her relatives who bought her up. The novel reeks of strong emotions – hate and dislike dominating the scene.
As the onion is peeled we get to understand Sally Jupp better. The writer has placed a lot of red herrings to misguide us successfully. Dalgliesh is from the Scotland Yard but the novel’s settings hardly demand an investigation from the premier agency. A rather specious reason is provided for him to arrive at the murder scene and take things forward. He is not assisted by a strong team, the forensics hardly matter and the characterization is not at the scale one is used in Ms. James’ classic novels.
Yet the climax is woven well and does not fail to satisfy our curiosity. It embellishes Sally Jupp’s character and one can see how it quite happened. The final scene of the family being assembled by Dalgliesh to reveal the mystery reminds one of Poirot’s adventures in similar settings. A positive beginning to the long innings Dalgliesh was to play throughout the series consisting of fourteen novels over nearly five decades.
Ms. James has succeeded in getting Dalgliesh to capture our imagination – with each of her book we learn more about it and nothing seems to jar from the way we imagine him. He is used effectively to convey the generational changes in an ageless manner. And in the process she has set high standards of writing – elaborate plots, detailed characterization, intricate motives and subtle insights into people’s mind. She always provides us suitable illustrations of the angst that dominates a variety of lives, from the privileged élite to the struggling Joe, as consumerism enables more choices but also numbs our satisfaction as we seek eternal happiness in our lives.