CBR III Week 7: Death in Holy Orders by PD James

Lately, I sit down to write things and before I can put a single word down, I look to my left and see my new nail polish and decide to paint all my nails jade green, because why not? I love jade green!

Anyway, my goal is to post a review every day this week and clear my backlog of books I've been meaning to write about.

Death in holy orders

I read PD James’s Death in Holy Orders so many weeks ago that it was still snowing then or something, probably. It’s a mystery, or did you get that from the d-word in the title? Specifically, it’s a mystery set in a remote Anglican theological college called St. Anselm’s. When I say remote, what I mean is that this place is like ten years from falling into the sea off East Anglia and when that happens exactly no one will notice. Adam Dalgliesh, James’s great poet/detective, visits St. Anselm’s one weekend to unofficially look into the mysterious death of one of the ordinands, at the request of his wealthy father. Dalgliesh’s weekend visit throws him together with a number of characters that are both temporary and permanent fixtures at the college, several of whom may have had motives for murder. Shortly after Dalgliesh’s arrival, another murder occurs, and Scotland Yard launches an official investigation into the people at St. Anselm’s.

There’s something so workmanlike about PD James’s writing. I can’t call to mind many writers who are quite so clear or self-effacing; she writes with so little ego. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I prefer this kind of writing to something highly stylized—there’s a wonderfully honest plainness to it: an understandability and accessibility that are possible, I think, only when a writer has great confidence in herself and her skills. So quietly authoritative is her voice that it allows her to insert any number of unlikely coincidences and subplots into the story without stretching believability. So, Adam Dalgliesh spent several summers in the seminary as a boy. So, one of the characters just happened to write down the thing that gets her killed in a diary (not a spoiler, actually!). Well, of course. In James’s hands it all seems sort of inevitable.

This is very much in the tradition of a British pre-war country house mystery, in that there’s a limited number of suspects, and the murderer must be found among them. It’s an interesting update on that concept actually, as it is profoundly concerned with elitism and tradition, and the cultural upending England has undergone since WWII, which has endangered both, for better and worse. 

James had me right up to the very end. I had only one real problem with this book, but it’s a bit of a doozy. Without giving anything away, I had a hard time buying the murderer’s motivations for what he had done. I’ve recently finished another of James’s books (A Certain Justice), and in both the motive for murder is quite similar, and the murderers are characters that remain rather hazy to us, but the difference in believability is enormous. In the case of Death in Holy Orders, it feels as if, at the end, James had to fit the character to the plot, rather than the plot to the characters, which gives the whole story an unfortunate mechanical quality: it fails to convince us that it’s more than a cleverly constructed puzzle, and so lacks the power to move us.




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