Review of ‘Death In Holy Orders’ by P D James

An interesting murder mystery and James is in top form in serving us a classic whodunnit along with a full-fledged novel with strong characters and an intricate plot.

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Set in an unusual locale of a remote theological college on a crumbling coastline, the physical decay and daily battle with sea is like an allegory of the state of affairs of the religion as well in the modern 21st Century. We are provided a bird’s-eye view of alternate voices – an unpopular one of an Archdeacon who views the college to be too elitist and archaic to serve the needs of the new millennium.

The murder mystery is not so engrossing, but the narrative is rich in character and content – the face-off between Archdeacon Crampton and Warden Sebastian Morrell are like ‘David v/s Goliath’. But there is a twist in the tale and James ensures that not many a reader would mourn the brutal death of the Archdeacon.

The tale has an innocuous beginning – Dalgliesh has planned a vacation in Suffolk and doesn’t mind visiting St. Anselm to enquire about a suspicious death of a student. The visit is a mix of business (allaying the concerns of a rich and powerful father who was not good terms with his deceased son) and pleasure (Dalgliesh had spent his vacations as an adolescent in the college and has many happy memories including that of Father Martin).

The college is a small community and many students are away while people are present of a short visit. This device helps Ms. James set up the tale of a chain of murders that are clearly a ‘insider job’ and there is only a close group of suspects. Dalgliesh is helped by Kate and Piers in delving the mystery. And for once there are no ambiguities at the end as Dalgliesh gets the assassin.

The murder plot does not hold a great appeal and it seems overdone in construction. But what is more riveting is interpersonal drama between various individuals. The Archdeacon and Warden are at war about the future of the college with the former trying to expedite closure while the latter fights him tooth and nail. The Archdeacon also has a running battle with a recuperating Inspector from local Police who had suspected him of contributing to his wife’s death.

The Archdeacon has also ensured conviction of Father Betterton on charges of abusing young boys. The Senior Ordinand Raphael, also the last in the line of the descendents of the founder of the college, resents the Archdeacon for wanting to close the college and having treated a fellow priest in an unkind manner. There is a lot of grist to serve the mill for red herrings and the air is thick of strong emotions and seething anger

Enough and more has been shovelled against Archdeacon Crampton and so we have a sense of James’ own response to the pertinent questions that the Archdeacon raises. To be fair to her, she does give him an articulate voice and sets up a fitting battle of wits between him and Father Sebastian Morrell. Her preferences are more subtly indicated in the unflattering portrait she creates of the man.

For the unacquainted and uninitiated, James delivers an intricate narrative of the history and beauty of Faith and the intriguing challenges that face it as the new generation has no desire for heaven and no fear of hell. The priests are indeed so unworldly and the practicalities of living seem to escape them – a cute example is given wherein the password for a safety alarm to protect valuables is the founding year of the college. And yet even a person from a different faith can sense the empathy and compassion that are the key contributions they make in their walk of life.

I enjoy James’ musings of the challenges of the modern society in wide themes cutting into diverse elements of ordinary lives – from religion to education, from challenges of policing including institutionalized racism to retaining the cherished ‘old-fashioned’ faith and piety.

Her description of the locale is engaging as well – we can visualize the  crumbling coastline that faces a daily onslaught from the sea waves crashing into it. The groynes meant to defend the fragile coastline seem to be there to only postpone the inevitable – Ms. James makes it a smart allegory to question people regarding their faith and the ability to sustain the joy and benevolence against violent and turbulent times that is part of our modern jet-set lives.


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