Complicated lives, fraught relationships, angst-ridden souls in the backdrop of the modern world and chaos is an enduring theme in all P D James novels. And she doesn’t disappoint us on that count even as she weaves a classic ‘whodunnit’ set up in a museum dedicated to crime and murder in Britain during the interwar years of 1919 – 1939.
The 12th novel in the Adam Dalgliesh series, we have the familiar characters of Ackroyd, Kate Miskin, Piers Tarrant and Emma. Dalgliesh remains a recluse professional but love is in the air as his relationship makes progress with Emma. (The heroine – if one were to use the term – is named after a famous character by Jane Austen who was P D James’ favorite writer’).
Even in her past novels, James has given her readers a flavor of real life crime history and the judicial system. Herein she sets the story in a quaint little museum that is dedicated to archive criminal history and artifacts from the interwar period in Britain. Ackroyd introduces Dalgliesh to the museum that is facing the prospect of closure as it is not viable in commercial terms. The Dupayne family are the patrons who need to decide on its future and whether they continue to subsidize it.
The murder plot is gory but not convoluted – the red herrings are all laid out but not all the loose ends are tied up eventually. For example – the bonfire comment is too much of a coincidence, the flame comment by the victim to Strickland simply makes no sense in the end, the African Violet play-of-words just grates our nerves. It is a close-knit plot with a handful of suspects. Primarily they include the two siblings, the Museum curator, the Museum secretary, a handyman and few other museum volunteers. But the trail goes cold rather quickly on many of these suspects. The back stories are done well and James provides us a good insight into their characters and natures.
James has made it a habit to comment on the challenges of modern life and we get her insights again on policing, sexual relationships including its modern variants, terrorism, crime, religion & piety and the general societal upheaval that is underway. She allows for modern trends to be included in the narrative so we have usage of mobile phones and emails that are an obvious doff to the changes technology is ushering into our lives.
The angst and stress in the lives of people who are apparently rather successful is an interesting facet in itself. But James is all about layers and so we find that all the people that abound in her novel are real and living because they have everyday battles to be fought and endured without which life loses all its meaning and flavor for them. All this is not anything new for a P D James fan – but she has fashioned her modern take on all these themes in a much bolder canvas in her recent novels. And that adds depth to her books although all the ‘modern’ plots are not of equal measure.
In this instance the rationale for the crime doesn’t quite have the ‘bite’ and it seems to be more of a rationalization than anything else. The devoted character is not a new invention – it is a repeat of shades from a previous novel, ‘A Shroud For The Nightingale’. The ‘copycat’ murder theme is just bizarre – no one is expecting a psychopath to be out on the loose. That the murders are connected is quite apparent, so any attempt to divert the suspicion seems to be amateurish. Certain red herrings are too much of a complication in the plot – a variant of an extra-marital affair, a private sex club and the appearance of a biological mother who has been in the shadows are vignettes that don’t quite catch our attention.
Yet Dalgliesh continues to fascinate with his gentle methods wherein he is able to inspire people to share their private lives and secrets with him. They trust him although the public view of ‘co-operating with the Police’ is negative on the whole. The final dénouement is a rather quick wrap and not in traditional format. The climax does have a build up for the ‘third victim’ and it is a clever ‘tongue-in-cheek’ job.
Still James’ fans will not want to give it a miss – more than the murder mystery, they will end up savoring a few other delights – a factual description of murder and crime during the interwar years, a handful of well crafted characters who have depth and personality and a modern view of popular societal themes such as policing, love & courtship, psychiatric treatment, the slide in London life be it the traffic, housing, popular culture or the BBC.