The 14th novel in the Adam Dalgliesh series appeared in 2008 – a journey of 46 years since his début in ‘Cover Her Face’ in 1962. And it is very apparent to be meant to be his swan song – I will not mind to be proved wrong if that means we can savour yet another Adam Dalgliesh mystery.
The writing is typical of James’ work and we get inveigled into a world of rich characterization and well drawn characters narrated at a very gentle pace. But the element of the murder mystery is certainly not her best and the ending seems to be a contrived one with far too many coincidences being crammed in. It does not matter though as otherwise it is a perfect book to bring to closure to our interest in Dalgliesh and to acknowledge that the world is capable of delivering only ‘a certain justice’ and never an absolute one.
The mystery is set in a Private clinic housed in a Manor in the English countryside. A leading investigative journalist is found strangled in her bed after undergoing a successful plastic surgery to remove a long scar on her face. It was result of a painful incident in her childhood about 34 years ago. The murder is identified to be an inside job and there are only handful of serious suspects involved. Indeed the book does not focus so much on being a whodunnit – it tries to delve the substratum to find a meaningful cause for the same.
The book will delight veteran Adam Dalgliesh fans and James has strewn it with clues that it is likely to be our last adventure with him.
Indeed the curtain scene is set in Dalgliesh getting married to Emma and with Kate being re-united with Piers. Prior to that she has hinted about the unit getting closed, Dalgliesh leaving the job with a variety of options – retirement, a more bureaucratic assignment or even a job in the academia or private sector. Even in the mystery we see less of Dalgliesh in action and most of the leg work is left to Kate and Benton-Smith. We do get to savor vintage Dalgliesh when he interviews an ‘out-of-luck’ school teacher who is bringing a positive change to his community.
James pet themes are on full display – angst in a variety of lives and circumstances, the class divide, the brutality of crime and murder, the loss of privacy, the pain of the innocents, the injustice of patriarchy, and the desperate need to remain humane in face of daily horrors of crimes. I have heard many readers complain of the careful regurgitation of the key themes in the life of Dalgliesh and Kate. It may seem irritating to them but I guess it is justified as first-time readers of Dalgliesh mysteries will not know the characters – surely we should not grudge the writer her creative freedom to set the tone of the book.
James has kept up with the times and the modern changes are woven into the narrative – we see the use of mobiles, laptop, internet and email. On the forensic side we see the use of DNA and a mention of level of Potassium in the fluid of the eye as an indicator of time elapsed since death. On the social front we attend a ‘Civil Union’ ceremony that is a nuanced doff to the LGBT community, notwithstanding a prior episode involving Marcus. For the young these are to be taken in the stride – it is more intriguing to see such easy acceptance of change by a near nonagenarian who would have pondered a lot about it before taking the final stand.
Well the novel comes to a nuanced end when the murderer eludes the final justice of our criminal system by choosing to end it all. This is not as uncommon theme in her novels – a similar end in varying degrees can be found in many of her past books. The final dénouement in Shroud for a Nightingale, Devices and Desires, Original Sin, and A Certain Justice belong to this paradigm. I think the final line is best left to the author herself and to quote her from A Certain Justice will be an appropriate farewell to Dalgliesh, “Console yourself with the thought that all human justice is necessarily imperfect. It is good to be reminded from time to time that our system of law is human and, therefore, fallible and that the most we can hope to achieve is a certain justice”.