I have always felt that Unnatural Death was the first of P.D. James' detective novels to really nail it for me, but the fifth book, The Black Tower, had, for some reason, always left me cold. I wonder why that was. Rereading James, I came to this book again for probably the fourth time, and this reading had me completely captivated. Just goes to show you that when an author whom you enjoy so much seems to fumble, it might be worth another try. Or four.
The story begins with Dalgliesh recovering from a life-threatening bout of what the doctors thought might have been leukemia, but he lucked out. He's told to spend several weeks recuperating, and he gets a letter from a very old acquaintance, a priest who has been working as the chaplain at an eccentric nursing home for the disabled way out on some isolated coast, asking for him to visit and give some confidential advice. But Dalgliesh is some days in visiting, and arrives to find his old friend dead and himself the owner of a great theological library, left in Father Badderley's will.
Despite himself, Dalgliesh starts looking into this odd little community, with its robed attendants and vow-of-silence shared meals, because this is one of two recent deaths which, while apparently natural, seem too coincidental. There is, of course, a killer at large in the small group, and the murders are not going to stop just because a Scotland Yard commander on convalescent leave is residing in one of the cottages.
I guess this book did not appeal to me because the killer's plot really is convoluted and requires some handwaving to accept the lack of reason paired with such meticulous planning. This will never be my favorite Dalgliesh story for that alone. But the prose is so much better than I ever credited it. I had been skimming the surface, and was missing just how creepy and oppressive this tale is. Some of the sequences are really horrific, and, focused on the detail, I found power that I didn't know this book possessed.
James is a challenging writer, piling on the detail of her characters' psychology and backstory. This much more complex approach, when compared with other writers I've sampled recently, results in books that take a little longer to get through. I can usually finish a Robert B. Parker in a day, but James takes me a week. It's almost always a very pleasant experience. Recommended.