Friday, December 4, 2009

A Taste for Death

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 A Taste for Death (Faber & Faber, 1986).

I realize that I tend towards the hyperbolic, but bear with me. Years ago, I read this book, after seeing the television adaptation on PBS's Mystery!, and concluded that it was among my two or three favorite novels of the last century. I liked it so much that, irrationally, I stopped reading PD James after her next three books failed to be as amazing as this. Well, I never claimed to be a very good or a very fair prose reader.

Rereading this, I'm still as sold as I was in the early '90s when I first absorbed it. This is a magnificent novel. It is the seventh Adam Dalgliesh story, written some nine years after the previous entry in the series, and it deals with the mysterious deaths of two men in the vestry of a London church. A former MP, who recently resigned after a religious experience, and a homeless tramp are found with their throats cut. Commander Dalgliesh has recently been assigned to a unit designed for the handling of potentially sensitive or scandalous crimes, and as baptisms by fire go, you couldn't ask for something more outre or potentially scandalous as this, particularly as the late Sir Paul Berowne had very recently been linked in a gossip sheet to the deaths of two young ladies who had worked in his household...

I love this book so much. I love the way it just sweeps through the social strata of contemporary London, with a series of crimes that links penniless children, political agitators, civil servants and aristocratic relics. PD James just effortlessly fills in backstory for a huge cast of players caught up in this horror, and man, I want to see the TV version again something fierce now.

I'm having trouble coming up with a way to explain what elevates this from a good novel to something that feels so special to me, and I think it's this. At no point reading it did I ever feel like I was reading a novel, with pages and chapters and a climax that was a measurable distance - centimeters of paper - away from me. The experience is just so immersive that, in prose, James was somehow able to make readers feel like these events were genuinely happening in London, 1986. It feels less like contrived fiction and more like modern history. Perhaps I'm the only one who gets this impression from the book; like most detective fiction, it is marginalized and certainly attracts little academic or critical attention, but this novel just bowls me over completely.

Over time, most great novels find their due, as they say, but this one, certainly among the greats to my mind, probably won't. I wish that wasn't the case. Every home should own it.

No comments: