Review of ‘Death of an Expert Witness’ by P D James

The opening scene is of a young woman being found strangled in a chalk clunch field in East Anglia but it is just a side light. The story is about the murder of a Forensic Scientist and is set in the unique location of a Forensic Lab.

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Yet another successful whodunnit by P D James, the narrative is taut and racy like a thriller as Dalgliesh along with Massingham unveils the mystery rapidly within two days.

It is one of the earlier novels of Dalgliesh and we are gradually made aware about his personality and life. We are introduced to Dalgliesh the poet who has tragically lost his wife and son in the childbirth gone wrong. Dalgliesh who is an efficient and effective detective with the Scotland Yard but who brings a humane approach to policing and investigation. Dalgliesh is given to digress from the story and we get certain gems due to his abstractions. He is asked a poser by a veteran who asks him to explain the difference between Management and Administration.

In yet another instance he is seen to counsel the young Brenda Pridmore about the choices she needs to make between aspiring to be scientist or a farmer’s wife. James also makes a mention about the Jury being skeptical about scientific evidence and higher maths involving probabilities – yet being able to return fair verdicts. She also gives us a ringside view of how Forensic science has evolved in recent history to enable police investigations.

The murder victim, Dr. Lorrimer, was a competent Forensic Scientist but he was simply unlovable. Roosevelt’s quote, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ would have been the right message for him. So we have a murder that is easily identified to be a ‘insider job’. And there is no death of motives and hardly anyone seems to have a credible alibi. And the red herrings are nicely set for us to unravel.

James does some justice to characterization though she is not as elaborate as her efforts in her subsequent books. We can see some ‘stock-in-trade’ renditions that inspire newer versions in her later novels. ‘Dr. Howarth and Domenica’ represented as devoted siblings are like a presage to the more famous pair of ‘Dr. Alex Mair and Alice Mair’ in Devices and Desires. Inspector Doyle battles his wife’s frustrations in being cooped in the Countryside with a busy copper – shades of this is repeated with Chief Inspector Terry Rickards battling his mother-in-law’s silent reproof of his lifestyle in Devices and Desires.

Lorrimer’s unrequited love narrative is tragic to note but we really don’t have much time to ponder about life as the action is unfolding fast and furious. Brenda’s fear while walking through the new lab building that is only half-built is a credible attempt to jangle our nerves.

The final dénouement comes with necessary element of surprise and the story is wrapped up fairly fine. There are no real loose ends left when we finish the climax. Indeed we have savoured a true thriller and James fetish to stretch the plot and people is something we will encounter only in the later of Dalgliesh’s adventures.


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