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The Murder Room

P.D. James

Faber and Faber Limited

UK Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-571-21821-0

Publication Date: September, 2003

371 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: September 15, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003

The Murder Room

P.D. James

Random House/Alfred A. Knopf

US Hardcover First


Publication Date: November 18, 2003

432 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: September 15, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction

Writing for over 40 years, with sixteen novels in total, two featuring young female detective Cordelia Gray and fourteen with perpetually middle-aged Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James has become a force majeur in detective fiction. Rooted in the tradition of classic British female mystery writers like Sayers, Marsh and Tey, she has edged the boundaries of that genre ever wider. Criminal detection and investigations of death provide but a latticework through which James weaves her emblematic elements of character, setting and theme.

"The Murder Room" takes place in Dupayne, a small, private museum devoted to the history of 1920s and 1930s now owned by three siblings. The Murder Room itself features exhibits and instruments from the most famous crimes of that period. Dupayne Museum will close unless the three trustees can agree on a new lease as mandated by their father's will. Marcus, the oldest brother, a newly retired public servant and his sister Caroline, headmistress of a nearby upper crust girl's school, favor maintaining the museum for reasons both philanthropic and personal. The middle brother, Neville, a psychiatrist, does not. Shortly after an acrimonious board meeting, one of the siblings is murdered, the murder methodology exactly echoing one of the infamous crimes displayed in the museum's Murder Room. Adam Dalgliesh and his team of investigators from CID are summoned to unravel the crime quickly and quietly. But of course, it is not to be that simple, as they discover a tangle of personal relationships and a mountain of possible criminal motivations.

'The Murder Room' is a classic James novel displaying many of her trademark narrative components. It is set, as are most of her novels, in a self-contained community slightly outside the mainstream of contemporary life. Dupayne Museum is reminiscent of the Anglican theological college of 'Death in Holy Orders', the Paddington Church, St Matthews, in 'A Taste for Death', the Peverell Press Publishing House in 'Original Sin'. It features as primary characters siblings whose histories are layered and complicated, and highlights the class-distinctions between the educated upper crust and the common-sense working class that only Adam Dalgliesh transitions with ease. The narrative revolves about a theme - here, murder in a socio-historical context or how murders and their outcomes reflect the times in which they are committed. The story is rooted in strong passion, which in this as in all James' novels, is perilous.

'The Murder Room' is above all, a novel of characterization and detail. James creates her characters with exquisite care, describing their facial features, their bone structure, their height, and their dress. Everyone is brought to life physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Imperious Caroline, hard-working Tally, efficient and controlling Muriel Godby. James exposes each - their passions, their disappointments, their prejudices and their pleasures and, through such extensive definition, they become familiar and involving. All the while we know, of course, that one of them has committed murder.

Attention to detail extends to the settings as well as the characters. Streets, houses and interiors are described with precision in lush prose. Architecture, art, history, books, flowers, soil, sun - all are noted, and all help embroider the spell. James' detailed descriptions are enveloping, dense, rich and absorbing. The pacing is languid as James sets her stage. 'The Murder Room' is fully a third complete before a crime occurs.

Adam Dalgliesh in 'The Murder Room' remains the masterfully created character who has anchored fourteen previous novels. He's a skilled detective and a published poet, a tall, dark, handsome loner, scarred by the loss of his wife and son in childbirth. Erudite and well educated, he's also humble and human. And in 'The Murder Room', he is a bit distracted by the love of Emma Lavenham, the beautiful scholar introduced in 'Death in Holy Orders'. If I have a quibble with this book, and it's a mere quibble, it's that James introduces Dalgliesh's personal emotional turmoil at the outset, revisits it midway through the narrative only once and only briefly, and revives it at the very end, in a style reminiscent of a schmaltzy Hollywood movie. Quite overly theatrical for James, I think.

The plotting in 'The Murder Room' is adequate, well thought out and well developed, but I never read James for plot. I'm impatient with plots that turn on acutely observed minutia - the position of a light switch, or misplaced keys or unaccounted minutes. It simply doesn't matter to me who did it and I take no satisfaction in trying to figure it out beforehand. I suspect I'm in the minority here, and that most readers revel in doing exactly that. For them, James plays fairly, providing clues and twists and a credible denouement.

While not an author I would elect to read on a daily basis, James paces her releases to suit me perfectly and I look forward to each new one. She's grandly old-fashioned (despite the cell phones and traffic jams) and her themes are timeless. I read James for her linguistic artistry, solely to be enveloped by her prose. She's a choreographer of words, writing an exquisite ballet danced by an elegantly costumed corps, to a full orchestra. She's an entrancing writer and 'The Murder Room' ranks as one of her best.