It is a classic crime novel yet again though there is no Adam Dalgliesh on the scene. In fact it is a departure from her series of ‘whodunits’ but at a psychological level it is still a thriller and the final dénouement is crisp and taut.
So we join Philippa Palfrey, a young upper class girl who was adopted, in search of her roots. The story seems terrible enough when she discovers the unsavoury background of her parents and in particular that her mother is a murderess who has served out 10 years of life sentence and is at the verge of being released. James adds a further twist by letting a counterplot appear where yet another murder is being planned. Finally she produces a nice twist in the tale towards the end.
James seems to be intrigued by illegitimacy and adoption / foster parenting as a theme. We are familiar with Kate Miskin’s struggle – she was brought up by her maternal grandmother after her mother died at childbirth and was unfortunate enough not to know about her father. In Kate it bought a tough spirit and a determination to extricate herself from the sordid surroundings of her childhood. Kate is intelligent and street smart but of course she is not an upper class denizen of the metropolis.
Philippa in contrast has been shown to be a confident upper class youngster who has just stepped into adulthood. She is relatively younger and not so savvy about life in the urban jungle. All the same even she is determined and tough enough to discover about her unsavoury past.
The book has lovely characterization – Maurice Palfrey is a social scientist who is proud of his adopted daughter, Hilda is an insecure homemaker who desperately seeks approval from her husband and daughter – she eventually settles for rescuing a stray street dog, Scase who grieves for his dead wife & daughter and is cast in the unlikely role of a potential murderer. Philippa’s mother – Mary Ducton – is characterized well and her transit to civil life is realistically portrayed.
James gives us a delightful narrative of London life – the Underground and the wide variety of life to be seen in its districts. She sets up interesting coincidences that move the plot forward in an intelligent manner. The twists and turns keep us hooked just like her traditional murder mystery.
There are no illusions in her view of life and she dishes it out as she sees it with a sharp vision devoid of any romanticism. Grit and determination appear to be a pre-condition for people to survive in the modern world. While the older and more suave Maurice struggles occasionally with the memories of his dead son,Orlando, one also learns that Philippa will have to come to terms with her parentage and troubled past. The novel wraps up rather neatly as it brings in satisfactory closures in the lives of it key characters. And so we sign off on a note of optimism that things will be fine and people will lead lives happily ever after.