Friday, February 19, 2010

Death in Holy Orders

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 Death in Holy Orders (Faber & Faber, 2001).

P.D. James definitely outfoxed me with this, her eleventh Dalgliesh novel. At first, I started to despair that once again, a murder was committed while Commander Dalgliesh was on leave, but the author, perhaps knowing that she'd done that three times already, subverted expectations by having a local policeman present as a potential suspect, meaning Dalgliesh's team is assigned by the Met to take charge of things.

As usual, James doesn't make her murders small. This time around, it's an archdeacon, visiting the remote Anglican theological college of St. Anselm's in Suffolk, who's found beaten to death in the college chapel. Dalgliesh was already visiting on an informal follow-up to an earlier accidental death at the request of the boy's father. Naturally, there's a lot more going on than anybody suspects, and James's usual tropes of very, very old crimes finally coming to light. It's written magnificently well, with passages invoking feelings of shock and revulsion and intensity. It's a taut page-turner, and certainly one of the best in the series.

Interestingly, this novel is one of the few to give readers a clue into the overall continuity. I have often been puzzled as to how to reconcile the ongoing fiction with the publication dates. The fourteen books were published over a 46-year span, but surely they can't all be set in the year they were written, not with Dalgliesh already described, rudely, as "the old man" in 1962. Here, it's stated that the events of the previous novel, A Certain Justice, published four years before, were the team's "last case." Since it's unlikely that the Metropolitan Police only finds work for their top detectives once every four years, there must be an internal clock that James works to. I wonder what it is, and over how many years the series is actually set. Highly recommended.

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