Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James – Book Review

pdjamesI finished this book in a couple of days while recovering from a nasty cold. This was in fact the first P.D. James novel I’ve read in my life – despite their enormous popularity they just never fell in my lap before, even though I quite like the crime genre. As the title suggests, this one is set in an Anglican theological college on the Suffolk coast, where a young, rather unpopular ordinand is found dead under a collapsed mound of sand (first time I’ve seen this method of death in a book, so full points for originality).

His death is dismissed as an accident, until his father receives an anonymous note hinting at foul play, and being the kind of powerful man who is accustomed to getting his way, he insists that Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard takes over the investigation. For Dalgliesh, it’s a chance to return to the place of many fond memories he’d visited as a boy. More bodies start to pile up even before he arrives, when the elderly woman who discovered the boy’s remains is murdered and her death passed off as natural – you pretty much know she’s doomed when she remembers something described as important and tells someone about it.

I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, mostly because of the backdrop of St. Anselm’s college, which is in danger of being closed down by the Church of England for being too remote and elitist – it’s so isolated that all access can be blocked by a fallen tree on the road. Like most insular places it’s got a distinct atmosphere of its own and is populated by a bunch of interesting, finely drawn characters. There’s a sparse, melancholic, contemplative feel to the story along with some nice observations of human nature, as the characters’ messy pasts and relationships get untangled. At times I couldn’t figure out what decade this book was taking place in – despite the occasional mention of mobile phones there’s something quaint and musty about it; I couldn’t work out if it was the author’s style or the nature of the setting.

Unfortunately I felt that much of the book’s charm goes out of the window in the second half, especially when Dalgliesh’s colleagues arrive from London and the novel gets taken over by the investigative mechanics. The unravelling of the mystery was somewhat anti-climatic, where in the last 50 pages I was expecting a major twist to happen, which never materialised – instead you realise that the last stretch was simply about finding the evidence rather than discovering the real culprit. Not exactly riveting. Overall though, it’s a well-written book and I’d be interested to read more by the author.

I gather that P.D. James really wasn’t a fan of Agatha Christie’s work – one scornful reference to her books is random, but two definitely point at a deliberate dislike.

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