Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Black Tower

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Black Tower (Faber & Faber, 1975).

The Black Tower was P.D. James' fifth Dalgliesh novel. She had a short detour prior to it with 1972's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a novel about a private detective named Cordelia Gray who operates in Dalgliesh's London, but honestly, I didn't enjoy the two Gray stories very much when I read them some time ago and have decided to pass on them for now. Gray is namechecked early in this episode, as our hero is recuperating from an ugly illness. Moody and world-weary as ever, Dalgliesh has decided to retire from Scotland Yard, but takes a month's convalescent leave in coastal Dorset to be certain of his decision, and to follow up on an old friend's request for advice.

Unfortunately, he arrives at the deeply eccentric Toynton Grange, a rest home for disabled patients run by a miracle-believing oddball who has his staff dress in Franciscan robes and observe meditation periods, too late to learn why Father Badderly had sent for him, as the old man had finally passed away a few days' previously. But his wasn't the first death in the isolated community, and naturally, this being a P.D. James novel, there will be more to come in the days to follow.

I found it interesting to see that for the second time in just five novels, James elected to take her hero out of London and force him to work when he's meant to be on leave. This is an interesting case where it certainly doesn't look as though a murderer is at large, but there's such an ugly, heavy sense of brutality and unhappiness in the community that the question of who might be next will certainly weigh on your mind. Her masterful command of plotting and character development, which I noted in an earlier review took a couple of books to develop, is now fully formed, and a harrowing sequence where an invalid decides to take her own life and take a painful climb, hauling herself up several flights of stairs, is really chilling stuff. James also deliciously teases us with information about the last day of a character's life, leading us to believe we're reading the moments leading up to her murder, only to twist things a few pages later and see that she's alive and happy, her death still some time away.

Structurally, it's a very interesting story, set at the tail end of the time when people would communicate their acceptance of a visit of several days' duration via postcard, and simply not follow it up with a phone call. One of the most interesting things about reading detective fiction from various eras, as I am doing, is observing how changes in technology and social etiquette would force a book's plot to move in radically different ways if tackled today. James, sensibly, always seems to avoid using slang or references that tie her pieces to any given era, but more than any fashion or cultural reference in the text, this simple use of the era's rules for social intercourse date the piece as something from England's past, and it's very interesting to me that a book written within my own lifetime feels so much like a period piece. Since the Adam Dalgliesh series spans forty-six years, I think that I'll enjoy seeing how James will concoct the events of later novels in keeping with contemporary culture's mores, and how her hero will reflect them.

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