James, P. D. Death of an Expert Witness.

NY: Scribner, 1977.

This highly regarded series featuring Police Commander Adam Dalgliesh are the only detective mysteries I know of where the author spends the first quarter of the book describing the setting and all the other players before even introducing the principal investigator.

Unlike Michael Connelly’s books about Harry Bosch, or Lawrence Block’s stories about Matt Scudder — unlike most police detective series, in fact — the focus here is always more on the crime and the details and circumstances surrounding it, and not so much on the personality of the detective.

The setting for this one is Hoggatt’s Laboratory, a government-supported forensics unit in Norfolk, where the county police send physical evidence from criminal cases to be analyzed, and whose experts usually end up presenting and explaining it in court. Hoggatt’s has a new Director, Dr. Howarth, who came from outside the forensics community, and the head of the Biology Department, Dr. Lorrimer, considers that he was cheated out of a promotion. However, nobody likes Lorrimer, he’s a very unpleasant person generally, and now someone has murdered him. He was found in the early morning, face down on the floor of his own lab, with the building’s security locks all in place. Dalgliesh is sent up from London to get to the bottom of things, and quickly.

Probing into the personality and background of the murdered man, Dalgliesh says, is “the strangest part of a detective’s job, this building up of a relationship with the dead. . . . The victim was central to the mystery of his own death. He died because of what he was.” Dalgliesh knows he’s bound to upset the well-being of all the people he must interview, too, as well as their routines. “Murder is like that, a contaminating crime.”

The gimmick, of course, is that everyone in the pool of suspects, from the young girl working as receptionist (sorry, “Clerical Officer” — they all love their bureaucratic titles at Hoggatt’s) to the head of the Documents Department (who gave Lorrimer a bloody nose the day before), is extremely familiar with police investigative procedure and with the nature of evidence. Dalgliesh will have to be more sophisticated than the killer. When it comes down to it, the revelation of whodunit is something of a surprise, though the clues were there all along. (James always plays fair.) This isn’t my favorite of James’s novels — nor is it, I think, her best — but it’s certainly well up on the list.

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