James, P. D. The Black Tower.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

This was the fifth of James’s novels featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard and even though there’s a thirteen-year gap between the first novel and this one (a pretty slow rate for a popular author), it has more in common with the beginning of the series than with the later efforts.

Dalgliesh has been in hospital with what he thought was terminal leukemia and had psychologically begun the progress of letting go of the world. But then (surprise!) it turned out to be a wrong diagnosis — “Only mononucleosis, you know.” He’s almost annoyed to be told he’ll recover. But he has decided to give up his police career anyway. (Throughout this story, Adam seems slightly unbalanced, actually.) But first there’s the letter he received from the elderly Father Baddeley, whom he had known as a boy and who has now asked him to come and give his advice on a problem at Toynton Grange, down on the Dorset coast. The Grange is a country house converted by its owner, Wilfrid Anstey, into a hospice for young, chronically and degeneratively ill patients, in honor of his miraculous cure at Lourdes. So Adam finally makes his way there, figuring he’ll convalesce for a bit while visiting his old friend, only to find that the priest has died, apparently of natural causes, and has already been cremated and buried. Something’s not right though. And at least one of the patients has also recently died under what seem to be questionable circumstances.

And there’s the set-up. The cast of characters, of course, is limited: The half-dozen patients, all in wheelchairs, Anstey and a another half-dozen staff (all of them losers in one way or another, which means they work cheap), and a couple of odd people renting cottages on the estate. James leads Adam (and the reader) from one player to another, almost by the hand, but it’s frankly hard to maintain interest. Adam, as I said, is off his feed, doesn’t want to get to know any of these people, resents having to stick around to look into the problem of the priest’s death, and only wants to get on with things. None of the patients is much more than pathetic. None of the staff is sympathetic at all. And the smug, rather self-righteous Wilfrid (he goes around in a brown monk’s cowl, for God’s sake) is the biggest loser of the bunch. The result is a not terribly interesting plot and a pace that drags on and on — although, in the last chapter, the bodies really begin to pile up. It took some resolution to finish the book, frankly. I’m happy to say that James has improved a very great deal since these early days.

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Published in: on 25 July 2013 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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