At less than 300 pages, the novel is a slick thriller that is pulsating with action. In all we have 5 murders – 2 appear to be natural death, 2 appear to be suicide / accidental death while the final one is a true blue murder. Add one more death to the list when the antagonist decides to end the tale in style by leaping of the crumbling cliff.
Dalgliesh, convalescing from a recent illness and contemplating to retire, meets a formidable foe with whom he battles right to the end on the scenic Dorset coast. James’ brings the action to a quick close with Dalgliesh being spared a tumultuous death by his foe who could have taken him along. The novel ends on a positive note with Dalgliesh rediscovering his appetite for the job.
James shows early signs of mastering characterization and the plot that we so admire in many of the murder mysteries in the Adam Dalgliesh series. The novel could have been titled, ‘The reluctant detective’ as well since Dalgliesh is contemplating abdication and the events from his view-point seem trivial. She employs a clever device in letting the reader know that we are dealing with a chain of murders while the events look natural to the observer.
Dalgliesh nonchalance can be maddening and lead you to doubt whether he has lost his mojo. By doing this she achieves the impact she aims for – the only interesting question was that not many thrillers were written with such subtle mechanisms. The usual approach was to shock the reader and then ‘get on with the job’.
Dalgliesh reaches out to Tonyton Grange at Dorset to meet his old acquaintance – Father Baddeley – who had made a cryptic request seeking his help. He finds that the place is run as a refuge for the chronically ill and disabled. And he learns that his host, aged and ill, had passed away in the night.
The cloistered environment and lives have created seething frustrations that are barely disguised. He also discovers a small mystery about ‘poisonous letters’ being sent within the small community to cause pain and distress for the recipients.
Things seem remiss but one can’t quite place what has gone wrong with the place. Even Dalgliesh moves about with self-doubt and rationalization that the trouble might be imagined than real. But small incidents keep happening and the story moves forward.
James has used the basic prototype of setting a murderous tale in a closed community that has religious leanings. She explores the pattern in greater details in her subsequent novel, ‘Death in Holy Orders’. One happens to spot a play on the phrase, ‘foul play’ that recurs in a similar pattern in the second novel. Surely we can make allowances for a writer to have some stock characters and scenarios that need to be repeated.
The mystery behind the murder and mayhem is finally revealed but is not as startling as has been in the other novels. In fact the wrap up is rather hurriedly organized and for some reason James has not added a final chapter that would have permitted for farewells to be said to the community, who are away on a pilgrimage visit to Lourdes.
All the same it is a riveting piece of work since it describes the world of the disabled and chronically ill in a vivid manner and the petty games that set in seem realistic enough. There isn’t much positivity going in the novel and the institutional nature of the home readily comes to fore as there is debate on the financials and the viability of having such set ups.
An interesting sidelight is the quiet tribute James pays to the rural police force. Dalgliesh gets to meet a young, earnest and intelligent officer who has investigated an accidental death to the best extent possible based on the evidence available. The case for their effectiveness and efficiency is built further in subsequent episodes including the final one where their timely arrival helps Dalgliesh make a providential escape from certain death.