James’s 18th novel revisits familiar ground—an insular social setting disrupted by a shocking murder—with consummate artistry.
For 34 years Rhoda Gradwyn has carried the legacy of her father’s abuse in the form of a disfiguring facial scar. Now a distinguished investigative journalist, she decides to have it removed because, as she tells Harley Street plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell, “I no longer have need of it.” The operation, performed in the surgeon’s private clinic in Cheverell Manor, is successful, but it still proves fatal for Rhoda, who’s strangled the following night. The murder scene, as usual in James (The Lighthouse, 2005, etc.), is thick with likely suspects and motives. Rhoda’s friend Robin Boyton, who recommended the clinic, is convinced that his cousins, assistant surgeon Marcus Westhall and his sister Candace, cheated Robin out of his rightful inheritance. Helena Haverland, the clinic’s general administrator, is still smarting over her family’s loss of Cheverell Manor to Chandler-Powell. Head nurse Flavia Holland is maddened by spurned love. Kitchen helper Robin Bateman is hiding a dire secret. Nor does anyone seem to mourn a woman who made her living by exposing unsavory secrets. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, called away from a meeting with his prospective father-in-law, and his colleagues uncover a series of red herrings as ritualistically as Hercule Poirot, but with a great deal more psychological nuance, before the killer, who could be practically anyone, is finally unmasked.
Middling work for the peerless James, a whodunit as deeply shadowed by mortality as all Dalgliesh’s cases ever since Shroud for a Nightingale (1971).