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The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #12)
P. D. James
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
432 pp., $25.95
by Ralph Wood
Murder, She Wrote
Having published her 16th crime novel (and 12th in the Adam Dalgliesh series) during her 83rd year of life, P. D. James seems to be approaching the end of her distinguished career as a worthy successor to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Yet chic critics find her work objectionably nostalgic and reactionary. For all the horror of its murders, they complain that James' world is too cozy and upper-crust. She re-creates a patrician Britain where there is no raw sex or crack or rap—a realm populated, instead, by posh traditionalists whose perfectly grammatical sentences are also uttered by lower-class characters. One of these critics thus sniffs that James' work is "fundamentally Christian and Tory."
The Murder Room would seem to validate these charges. It is set in yet another of the close-knit professional enclaves that James renders so convincingly: a publishing house in Original Sin (1995), a law firm in A Certain Justice (1997), a theological college in Death in Holy Orders (2000), and now the Dupayne Museum on Hampstead Heath. This fictitious museum memorializes the years between the first and second world wars, the decades of mourning as James once described them, when she came to her own adulthood. James husband returned from World War II so psychologically damaged that she was effectively widowed by this last great act of British moral heroism. Hence her narrator's praise of "those inter-war years in which England, her memory seared by the horrors of Flanders and a generation lost, had stumbled through near dishonour to confront and overcome a greater danger."
That the same Brits who once bravely stood up to Hitler recently created the disastrous Millennium Dome would seem to provide James yet another occasion, under the guise of detective fiction, to lament the decline and fall of all that once stood as right and good. Because the novel also contains several unknotted threads, as well as a subplot that never really riveted this reader's interest, James would ...