James, P. D. The Murder Room.

NY: Knopf, 2003.

Often, when I start on a new author of mysteries and detective stories (new to me, anyway), I will begin at the beginning and go pretty much straight through the list. I did that (more or less) with Michael Connelly and Lawrence Block, and it worked just fine. But P. D. James’s novels about Commander Adam Dalgliesh are different. The narratives are too dense and rich to allow you to finish off one and immediately pick up another. It would be like eating a quart bucket of caviar all at once.

And James is in no hurry, either. In this one, you’re a quarter of the way into the story before the first murder takes place. But by the time it happens, you’ve already got a good feel for who the main suspects are going to be and what the motive for the killing is likely to have been. (Of course, you would also be wrong, but anyway. . . .)

The Dupayne Museum, located in a repurposed big house on the edge of Hampstead Heath in north London, was established by its founder to tell the story of the inter-war years, 1918 to 1939, and since old Max’s mostly unlamented death his three children have been its trustees. Marcus Dupayne, a retired civil servant, is about to take the reins of management from his sister, Caroline, partner in an expensive girls’ finishing school. And there’s Neville, an overworked psychiatrist, who, for his own reasons, wants no part of the museum. The thing is, all major decisions, including the acceptance of the new lease, require the signatures of all three of them, or else the museum will close. Marcus and Caroline insist that it must continue; Neville is adamant that he won’t sign, that it’s time the Dupayne was shut down. The other principal characters are all employees of or volunteers at the museum — especially Tally Clutton, the housekeeper, who lives in a cottage out back, and Muriel Godby, who runs the office and is especially close to Miss Caroline. The author introduces you to each of these people and gives you their background and lets you into their heads and they become entirely real. And then Neville’s Jaguar, stored in the museum’s garage, is found wrapped in flames one night and there’s a dead body in the driver’s seat. Is it Neville? Was it an accident? Suicide? Murder?

Certain people at the Dupayne have high connections, which justifies calling in Commander Dalgliesh and his Special Investigations Squad, and the well-tuned investigative machinery swings into action, with DI Kate Miskin, DI Piers Tarrant, and Sgt. Benton-Smith all doing their thing. The story then becomes largely a police procedural, but this ain’t the 87th Precinct, and these people each have their own lives, ambitions, problems, and struggles. Dalgliesh has an important problem, too: Since the previous book, Death in Holy Orders, he has become involved with Dr. Emma Lavenham, a lecturer in English literature at Cambridge, and he’s trying hard to establish a permanent relationship with her, but he keeps having to break their dates when important cases call him away. How much longer will Emma be able to put up with this? Will one of them have to sacrifice a professional career in order for them to have a life together?

As always, James tells a gripping story with a well-thought-out plot, and does it in an intellectually satisfying narrative style that just wraps you up and carries you along in the current. But I’ll take my time and wait for this one to settle in before I pick up the next book. It’s only fair.

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Published in: on 3 May 2012 at 5:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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