A Taste for Death
P. D. James
First published in the UK 1986, Faber and Faber
This edition Penguin Books in association with Faber, 2005
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.’
‘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
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.