‘The skull beneath the skin’ by P D James

Published in 1982, the murder mystery’s title echoes James’ favorite belief in examining the psychological aspects of crime rather than doing lot of legwork.

It is a classic murder mystery – a remote island in a Victorian setting and a close ring of suspects. We do not have Adam Dalgliesh on the spot – instead it marks the second outing for private eye, Cordelia Gray, after the successful adventure of ‘An Unsuitable Job For A Woman’.

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 Agatha Christie did it very successfully in her tale, ‘Ten Little Indians’. And so we have James attempt the classic genre now – a desolate island, a leading actress in the twilight of her failing career as a Shakespearean heroine, the various people in her life and proprietor of Pryde Detective Agency – Cordelia Gray who has been tasked with the work of protecting the diva’s life and to solve the mystery behind the death threats she has received. The threats are literary quotations related chiefly to Shakespeare’s work and are printed on an ordinary paper embellished on the top with the drawing of a skull with crossbones.

The characters are all well drawn. Clarissa has all the makings of a diva, she is shown to throw tantrums and does not care for people’s feelings. She is not very intelligent but has a shrewd sense of the situation and usually gets her way. Sir George Ralston, Clarissa’s husband and a decorated World War II veteran seems to be stolid person who is devoted to his wife. The scene unfolds on an island owned by a classy popular novelist, Ambrose Gorringe, who happens to be Cordelia’s childhood friend.

The other key characters include a celebrated critic and ex-lover of Clarissa who is suffering from terminal disease, Roma, Clarissa’s cousin and an ex-school teacher, who now runs a second-hand bookshop and is in dire need of funds and Simon, Clarissa’s stepson from a past marriage, who is studying music and is a shy and gauche young man.

Enough red herrings are laid in and the plotting is quite bizarre. James’ has been a bit careless with the knitting this time and as many side plots don’t reach a logical end and the final unmasking of the killer seems like an underdone job. Her usual style involves providing logical ends to the false trails so that the reader does not quite feel cheated about being misled about any potential suspect. The police interrogations are real and interesting. Indeed a pity that we don’t see much of Grogan and Buckley in the story. Their perspective would have been interesting and could have been used as an effective counter plot to run down dead the side plots that impinge on the tale.

But the island has a bloody past and the narrative is quite grotesque in that respect. So we learn about a crypt below the house that leads to a trap called, ‘Devil’s kettle’. A trapdoor that leads to a cave down the iron ladder. The cave’s opening meets the sea and get completely flooded during the high tide. It meant a watery grave for anyone who was trapped therein. And to imagine an adventure wherein a young soldier was handcuffed in the cave and simply left to die a painful death during World War II. Brr … this part of the narrative is sure to give goosebumps to an average reader.

A touching vignette involves the way people manage their lives. Due to the change circumstances suddenly Clarissa’s dress, Tolly, and the butler’s wife, Mrs Munter, find redemption. James is quick to note that the two ladies were quite comfortable financially and could have chosen to be independent earlier. Yet they had spent years linking their respective lives to Clarissa and Munter. And interestingly enough post the long period of servitude, they had tried to find solace in mutual companionship.

Cordelia Gray comes off with a creditable performance and it is a bit surprising that James chose not to repeat her any further in her future adventures. All her new stories featured the dour detective, Adam Dalgliesh. But Cordelia’s character seems to have morphed into Kate Miskin who appeared as Dalgliesh’s assistant in many stories. Cordelia lost her father early and went into foster care, Kate in contrast was an orphan who was raised by her aged grandmother. They both battled odds to improve their lot and to leave behind their lower middle class life. Kate seems to be more mature version of Cordelia – she is street smart and physically just as strong.

Overall it is a fair effort to do an island story – the final dénouement could have been more intriguing for sure.

Credit: Reg Innell / contributor Courtesy: Getty Images
Credit: Reg Innell / contributor
Courtesy: Getty Images

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