A TASTE FOR DEATH by P.D. James

A TASTE FOR DEATH

KIRKUS REVIEW

Like her other recent, long mysteries (Death of an Expert Witness, The Skull Beneath the Skin), James' new 480-page novel is absorbing reading, chockablock with arresting characters, edgily compelling conversation, and grainy atmospherics. Also like those books, however, it isn't a first-rate-mystery--and its final chapters, suddenly reaching for ambitious psychological melodrama (reminiscent of Ruth Rendell), show James' talent straining against the genre limitations. Sir Paul Berowne, a former Crown minister who has recently had some sort of religious awakening, is found bloodily dead in the vestry of a humble London church; nearby is the body of a similarly slain tramp. Scotland Yard's first impression? That an unhinged Berowne killed the tramp, then committed suicide. But poet-sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, leading a special squad, is not convinced. And his full-scale investigation focuses primarily on the layered secrets of the grand Berowne household: the dead man's imperious, aged mother; his frivolous, pregnant, unfaithful (second) wife; his estranged, leftist daughter; family retainers, both bitter and doting. Virtually everyone has a motive. . .and an alibi. Meanwhile, too, James offers sympathetic portraits of non-suspects--like the timid spinster and the local waif who found the bodies; or smart young policewoman Kate Miskin, who's determined to leave her down-scale background (including an aging grandmother) behind. Paradoxically, however, neither of the two central figures here--Dalgliesh himself and murder-victim Sir Paul--emerges with comparable sharpness. And there's a sense of anticlimax when the unmasked killer (unsurprising, unconvincing) takes cop Kate as a hostage--in a harrowing yet contrived and lopsided finale. Unlike Dorothy L. Sayers at her best, then, James hasn't quite managed to combine novelistic richness with disturbing, satisfying mystery. (Rendell, less ambitiously, channels her equally complex talents into many small, neat books in different genres.) But, resonating with themes, from family responsibility to class warfare to the perils of ambition, this leisurely, somber investigation is moodily compelling most of the way through--and only disappointing in its fitful, hollow resolutions.
Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1986
ISBN: 1400096472
Page count: 585pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1986




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