Earlier this month I decided to re-read Cover Her Face, published in 1962 and the first in P.D. James’ successful Detective Adam Dalgliesh series. As this book is approaching it’s 50th year in print — and because I so thoroughly enjoyed reading it — I thought it would make a suitable subject with which to revive this blog.
As is so often the case with whodunnits, the finer details are inherently susceptible to the imperfections of a reader’s memory. In my case, having read this book at least 20 years ago, my recollection of the story was all but nonexistent. So, aside from an understanding of Dalgliesh’s character from my reading of the whole series over a span of several years, my reading of this book was fresh and new.
P.D. James has established herself in the highest ranks of British crime fiction over the years, due in large part to the success of the Dalgliesh series. This praise is well-deserved, and I’ll take a few moments to state some of the reasons why I feel this is the case.
First, Dalgliesh, as a series character, reveals himself to the reader slowly, developing incrementally with each book in the series. This sets him apart from most other characters in similar series. The norm is to fully dress a character, assign them numerous unique traits, and work those into the story. Here, James tries a much different approach. In may places in the book, I was conscious of how little of Dalgliesh’s personality is expressed. In fact, for much of the first book, he appears little more than a shadowy force of detection who conducts his investigation quietly in parallel with the main storyline. This narrative path flows and weaves through the lives of the family of suspects, each engaged in various inquiries, investigations and machinations, trying to determine how likely they are to be named as suspects by the police. As such, we get to know the great detective more indirectly, through his influence on the suspects and by his reputation than is common with other detectives. When I compare Dalgliesh to other memorable figures in near-contemporary English detective fiction — Morse, Linnley, et. al. — I appreciate how risky and unique it is for a writer to not over-develop the character and season them with details of musical taste, shaving-soap preference, classic cars, and other accoutrements. This absence of detail about the detective creates a wonderful sense of suspense that builds up as the narrative follows several obvious paths of inquiry. These inquiries are for most of the book undertaken by the various suspects themselves, and Dalgliesh’s investigation is revealed to be thorough in passing, but we only get glimpses into his investigation at moments when he is interviewing suspects in the home or when he crosses paths with one or more of the other characters. Ultimately, the stage is well set for Dalgliesh to summon all the suspects together near the end and summarily expose each suspect’s unseemly doings before ultimately uncovering the actual murderer. Always the detective, Dalgliesh conveys few of his thoughts until the final reveal.
Even though this is James’ first book, her handling of the plot shows incredible control. She writes in a somewhat formal, perhaps high-brow style, with sharp, precise descriptions of place and person, and quickly engrosses the reader in the social dynamics of a household where a crime will take place. On their own, the characters in the book appear a bit old and dusty, suited to the time as members of a diminishing pre-war landowning social class. The characters may seem somewhat ill-at-ease and anachronistic by today’s standards. The isolation of the characters and their social milieu in a distinctive past enhances the reader’s appreciation for James’ writing as it helps suspend the reader in a comfortable yet unfamiliar “closed room” where the characters interact, and react. Like all good writers, she not only has firm control of the characters, but she has control over the psychological environment in which relationships and motives are formed. This makes the final reveal all the more tantalizing, as this story, as simple and isolated as it may appear, is one which reveals more wrongdoing than just the act of murder. In keeping with the format of the whodunnit, the reader is led to think “there are 10 people in the room and one of them is a murderer.” But this is an oversimplification which adds a great deal of depth to the solution of the crime and exposes many in playing a role in the murder by indirectly contributing to the plight of the victim. (I’m trying hard here to make a point without letting loose any spoilers.)
Like all great whodunnits, the setting has to be set firmly in a social, psychological and physical setting, and the final reveal has to remain plausible even under the strain of time. As readers of more current crime fiction will attest, the format of the classic whodunnit has become in itself less favored, in part because it implies more enclosed, personal settings, an intellectually dominant and watchful sleuth, and rarely allows for wild deviations in structure. It is also less accepting of technological intrusion and over-played, senseless violence. Whodunnits with maniacal axe-wielding, computer hacking villians are perhaps just too much to suspend a reader’s disbelief. Frequently, these stories involve more intimate crimes employing poisoning or strangulation, often only involving a single victim and multiple but limited number of known suspects. Cover Her Face fits this general description in almost all ways.
Cover Her Face is a classic whodunnit, in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but lacking the pecularities of character that drive series like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey. Here we have a Detective who is calm, focused and in many ways under-exposed. He exerts considerable influence on the story without asserting too much of his personality, and the result is one of the better set-ups for a great series-character.
If you have not read the Dalgliesh series, I highly recommend it. Nothing I’ve revealed here will diminish your surprise or enjoyment. I would highly recommend reading the series in sequence, and to that end, I’m including a list of the books in order below for reference. I am determined to re-read the entire series myself in the coming months and look forward to seeing if some of the positions I’ve stated here hold up. P.D. James is a master of form and offers great stories which age exceptionally well over time.
The complete Adam Dalgliesh series are:
- Cover Her Face (1962)
- A Mind to Murder (1963)
- Unnatural Causes (1967)
- Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
- The Black Tower (1975)
- Death of an Expert Witness (1977)
- A Taste for Death (1986)
- Devices and Desires (1989)
- Original Sin (1994)
- A Certain Justice (1997)
- Death in Holy Orders (2001)
- The Murder Room (2003)
- The Lighthouse (2005)
- The Private Patient (2008)