Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #12)
The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #12)
P. D. James
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
432 pp., 25.95

Buy Now

by Ralph Wood

Murder, She Wrote

P.D. James' masterful detection of the primal sin.

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 seem to be showing signs of artistic decline as well. Yet such judgments, while partially just, are also premature, perhaps even wrong in the largest sense.The Murder Room reveals that P. D. James remains fully engaged with the postmodern world, even as she renders a searing verdict against its unacknowledged nihilism.

Early in the novel, a minor character observes that murder is the paradigm crime of every age. Ever since Cain slew Abel in Eden, murder has been the primal sin. To take that which no one can possibly give, a human life, is to commit the one offense which permits no restoration. It is to arrogate unto oneself, even if unconsciously, a terrible divinity. The methods and motives of our murders thus serve to identify the moral character of our time. One of Dalgliesh's assistants names our deities well: "the modern holy trinity is money, sex and celebrity." Rather than offering another diatribe against decadence, however, James the alleged conservative shows that it is also the educated and the comfortable and the well-placed—not the uncultured hordes alone—who commit murder in the worship of these latter-day Baals.

The struggling Dupayne Museum, founded by the wealthy and eccentric Max Dupayne, is housed in a Victorian mansion, and it is controlled by his three children, Marcus, Caroline, and Neville. Marcus and Caroline are determined to keep it open at all costs, while the psychiatrist Neville wants to close the unprofitable venture. He believes that Great Britain, as a nation already obsessed with its past, pays far too little heed to its present concerns, especially the elderly and the mentally ill. In addition to Caroline and Marcus, there are six employees who stand to gain from the museum's being kept open. And when Neville is doused with gasoline and set afire in his Jaguar as he prepares to leave the museum one evening, suspicion naturally falls on these eight. Another murder follows, as well as a third attempted slaughter, and all three crimes seem to be copy-cat versions of notorious homicides commemorated in the museum's only popular attraction: the Murder Room.

As always, James is especially adept at sifting and sorting the motives of people who live in intimate professional relation—their rivalries of class and personality, their secret griefs and public clashes, their fundamental inability ever to know one another, perhaps not even themselves. More than any of her rivals, she has made the detective novel an instrument of serious moral and psychological discernment. Over and again, she provides eloquent descriptions of outward scenes that reflect inward realities, offering her readers wisdom that is at once assuring and disturbing:

Tally never liked to sleep with her window closed. Now she opened it wide and the cold air [from the heath] washed over her, bringing with it the peace and silence of the night. This was the moment at the end of the day which she always cherished. She knew that the peace stretching beneath her was illusory. Out there in the dark, predators were closing in on their prey, the unending war of survival was being waged and the air was alive with millions of small scufflings and creepings inaudible to her ears. And tonight there was that other image: white teeth [of the burnt Neville Dupayne] gleaming like a snarl in a blackened head. She knew that she would never be able to banish it entirely from her mind. Its power could only be lessened by accepting it as a terrible reality with which she would have to live, as millions of others in a war-torn world had to live with their horrors. But now at last there was no lingering smell of fire and she gazed over the silent acres to where the lights of London were flung like a casket of jewels over a waste of darkness which seemed neither earth nor sky.

This is not mere elegant writing, much less a melancholy longing for an irrecoverable past. It is, instead, a repudiation of all nostalgia for the world that was permanently obliterated at Ypres and Passchendaele and the Somme. It is a confrontation with the cultural nihilism which, destroying all illusions about Western immunity from the world's ills, has become the chief legacy of the past century. James suggests that a British generation which has never known the threat of political evil, except for a bout of IRA terrorism in the 1980s, is susceptible to a new kind of moral nothingness—the kind that leaves people uncaring and uncommitted to anything other than their own pleasure and power.

It is the cultured and well-off folks of the Dupayne Museum who turn out to be most severely afflicted with this deadly malaise. One of them manages Club 96, a secret society of the wealthy and powerful who repair to the museum at night in order to indulge in anonymous group sex. These mask-wearing swingers are incapable of ordinary lust, since sex is for them a mere anodyne. Lord Martlesham, a peer of the realm also noted for his philanthropy, sees nothing amiss in seeking erotic relief from the anxiety of living amidst a dying culture: "No one was being exploited or used, no one was doing it for money, no one was under-age or vulnerable, no one had to pretend. We were like children—naughty children, if you like. But there was a kind of innocence there." These "innocent children," James reveals, are the movers and shakers who occupy the high places of our culture—these practitioners of our normal everyday nihilism. Her devastating critique of them demonstrates that she is hardly a wistful trader in cozy traditionalism. On the contrary: The Murder Room stands finally as one of P. D. James' most morally and spiritually bracing novels, a masterful detection of our paradigm crime.

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. His most recent book is The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Westminster John Knox).

Most ReadMost Shared