P. D. James: A Taste for Death

A Taste for DeathA Taste for Death
P. D. James
First published in the UK 1986, Faber and Faber
This edition Penguin Books in association with Faber, 2005
ISBN: 9780571229604
514 pages
Source: British Red Cross, Wymondham

The story opens alongside a canal towpath in Paddington, near St Matthew’s Church. A spinster of the parish, Emily Wharton, is one her way to St Matthew’s to arrange the flowers, accompanied by Darren Wilkes. Darren is a local boy who has attached himself to Emily for company. She knows little about his home life but suspects he is neglected and starved of adult company. She is starved of company herself, and quite enjoys him tagging along while she goes about her chores. When this odd couple walk into the grubby vestry of the church, they are confronted with two dead bodies, throats slashed with a cut-throat razor. In the shock, it is Darren who keeps his head and goes to fetch Father Barnes.

The priest identifies the bodies are those of Harry Mack, a local tramp, and Sir Paul Berowne, a politician. So ends chapter one. And, at the end of chapter one, I ran slap-bang into the first issue I have with this book:

1. The strikingly odd formality of everybody in it. Here’s how the priest Father Barnes identifies the dead politician:

‘The other is Paul Berowne, Sir Paul Berowne. He is – he was – a Minister of the Crown’

This is simply not how people speak about corpses. Not in the books I’ve read, anyway. And it’s not just the priest. All of the main characters speak as though they have a copy-editor standing behind them with a red pen levelled at their heads.

Then in chapter two, I discovered my second quibble:

2. It’s immediately clear that Harry Mack was murdered, while there is some doubt about Paul Berowne. However, Berowne gets 99% of the police’s attention. Nobody interviews Harry’s acquaintances; nobody painstakingly reconstructs his last day on earth; nobody asks the local homeless population for alibis.

Instead, Dalgliesh is straight off to the spacious, John Soane-designed home of Berowne, interviewing his relatives and servants in descending order of importance. The mother, Lady Ursula Berowne, is a throwback to Downton Abbey, who has been bossing people around since 1914. His wife, Lady Barbara, is a shallow society beauty who doesn’t really fit in. Then there are Mattie, the troubled daughter of a murderer whom Berowne failed to save from imprisonment, who works as a housekeeper, and finally the chauffeur Halliwell. Also in the ring of suspects: the victim’s mistress, Barbara Berowne’s gynaecologist lover, a radical daughter and her firebrand boyfriend, and a fey ne’er-do-well of a brother-in-law.

During the interviews Dalgliesh offers the murder of Harry Mack up as a verbal slap in the face for Lady Ursula:

‘Is there anything else, Commander? If there is, and it isn’t urgent, perhaps it could wait until you are sure that you are, in fact, investigating murder.’
Dalgliesh said:
‘We know that already, Lady Ursula. Harry Mack was murdered.’

Oh yeah? Send someone to find his next of kin then.

I think it would be unfair to accuse James of class-based snobbery. Cultural snobbery is probably close to the truth. This is a world where no room is complete without a watercolour or something executed in oils (even if they have to paint it themselves) or at the very least a modern first. And where everybody not only knows that Adam Dalgliesh is a poet, but is aware that he hasn’t published for a while. I know this is fiction, but a widespread awareness of contemporary poetry seems to be pushing the envelope a little.

When P. D. James writes about low culture, there’s a distinct air of a Victorian philanthropist deploring the antics of the unenlightened. Lady Berowne, the widow not the mother, is decadent enough to own a telly. Some minor characters have a copy of the TV Times in their house, but no other magazines or books. Tsk.

Anyway, that’s my axe ground.

To be fair, there is enough evidence to persuade Dalgliesh that Berowne was the intended victim. Not only had he recently resigned as a Minister and a Member of Parliament, he has been the recipient of a poison-pen letter, is associated with two suspicious deaths in his immediate circle, and has been acting very strangely. In fact it soon emerges that Berowne had a mystical experience at St Matthew’s and was making sweeping changes to his life as a result.

In the absence of any convincing physical evidence pointing to the killer’s identity, Dalgliesh and his team focus on the suspicious deaths in Berowne’s recent past: Theresa Nolan and Diana Travers. Nolan was Lady Ursula’s nurse and killed herself after an abortion she regretted. Travers was a resting actress working as a cleaner who drowned at Barbara’s birthday party. Needless to say, hidden peculiarities soon come to light. But actual evidence continues to elude the team and they soon resort to their instincts.

Which of the suspects had the means, the opportunity, the knowledge, the physical strength, the motive? It was unproductive so early in the investigation to begin asking: has this man the ruthlessness, the nerve, the desperation, the psychological make-up to commit this particular crime? And yet, seduced by the fascination of human personality, they nearly always did.

A Taste for Death is of course beautifully written, but it seems to go on and on. There is a lot of introspection, with Dalgliesh’s habitual self-analysis compounded by the musings of his team-members Kate Miskin and John Massingham. 500+ pages is a lot to fill, and measured prose doesn’t hold my attention forever. To be honest I almost gave up in the middle, and I never do that.

However, I was glad I stuck around for the final 100 pages or so. The pace picks up and there are some genuinely suspenseful moments. And the last couple of pages… I had something in my eye, OK?

Worth it overall? Honestly, I could have read the beginning and end with great enjoyment without wading through the middle.

See also: Reviews at Killing Your Characters (‘This book is what I love about the British tradition of crime novels, and while it had its flaws, it is PD James doing what she does best, and making it look like a craft.’), and Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (‘We also see class differences in the contrasts among Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin. Kate Miskin is a member of the working class, who’s had to work hard and fight her way, so to speak, to become an Inspector. Dalgliesh is “well-born,” and Massingham, too has an educated background.’)

I am entering A Taste for Death in the 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (‘one book with a professional detective’ category).

Final destination: Charity shop

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Adam Dalgliesh, Classic mystery book review, Suspense, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to P. D. James: A Taste for Death

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – First, thank you for the kind mention. And I agree about those last few pages of the book… I couldn’t help as I read the book thinking about the differences between the way Mack’s murder is handled and the way Berowne’s is. As you, the style just flows so well too. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t stay engaged all the way through (I’ll admit – it is long), but it’s good to hear you got all the way through to that last section.


  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    Over 500 pages! I simply will not have the patience to read such a long book.


  3. Sorry you didn’t like this one more Rich – it’s been a while but I remember being pretty impressed way back when for its style, control of plot and of course the tragic finale. It seems odd to me that James is now considered to be such an establishment writer when in the 60s and 70s she was in many ways an innovator and I think her depictions of people from the upper classes is probably pretty accurate Compared with the likes of Sayers she is probably still a bit of a radical I think and personally I’d rather read this than say Gaudy Night any day! Having said that, she hasn’t written as good as this one since in my view, which I realise from your point of view is probably not saying much!


  4. I think this was the book that finally turned me off James, so I’m with your anti-thoughts rather than the pro. The books got longer and longer, Dalglish got more and more annoying, all that leading poet business, the weird class consciousness…. couldn’t take it any more.


  5. Curtis Evans says:

    I think you make some great observations here!

    While James sees herself as a great advocate of realism in the detective novel (or credibility), t’s true, I think, that James shares some of the “flaws” of the Golden Age books (at least they’re what she herself criticizes as flaws). One is the fact that her characters tend to speak in this highly precise, formal way. We Americans might call it speechifying. It’s lovely language, but reflects more the world of the nineteenth-century novel than the modern world, I would hazed to guess, even in UK (we know James loves the nineteenth-century novel of manners, like Sayers).

    In fact, Agatha Christie, for all the shots she has taken from James over the years for her lack of realism, actually tends to be much less formal with the speech of her characters, even though they usually come of more privileged backgrounds as well.

    I have to admit in Innocent Blood, for example, I just found I couldn’t believe in the characters, they were so high-toned. There was a gay man who would have been born around 1960 as I recollect who talked like a noel Coward character (gay men in James’ book tend to be extra eloquent and quippy).

    You are so right about how James loves to describe those water colors and oil paintings everyone has (usually there’s an oil over an “elegant” Georgian mantel–she loves the word elegant). Much of her longer books she devotes to details about architecture and interior decoration. I have to admit I prefer her earlier books, where more of the focus is limited to the immediate story.

    As someone who made her way in the professional world when it was very tough for women and who overcame a lot of personal adversity, I think she hugely venerates professional people. They are her “class”, rather than the landed aristocracy in older books, say. She usually throws in a plucky cleaner or street waif and she’ll use the -f-word occasionally, but she seems most comfortable with highly-educated, highly formal and eloquent professional people who sound like posh types from the 1960s (or at least what I imagine they sounded like from books). In her books she still uses the euphemism “go to bed with,” for example, when in the modern gritty crime novel they are more likely to be a bit blunter!

    I think James’ life led her to hugely value order and culture. Her people may not be happy, may have in many ways even rather grim lives, but they cling duty and to culture.

    I think where James greatest claim to realism perhaps lies is allowing real misery to invade the form of the Golden Age detective novel. Of course she was hardly alone in this (even Christie novels like Ordeal by Innocence and Endless Night, for example, have some of this quality), but she certainly is one of the most notable figures in this movement.


  6. Curtis Evans says:

    James characters, for example, would never be allowed to make this grimmer error 😉 :

    “As someone who made her way in the professional world when it was very tough for women and who overcame a lot of personal adversity, I think she hugely venerates professional people.”

    It would be recast, perhaps, to “she hugely venerates professional people, I think.”


  7. curtis evans says:

    Oh,also meant to comment about your observation on the final pages. They indeed are very moving–the most moving part of the book, I thought–but they involve characters only tangentially involved with the book’s mystery plot line!

    And above that should be grammatical, not grimmer! Don’t know how I came up with that!


  8. Col says:

    Great review, I’ve never tried the author and I don’t think I’m tempted to now


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