Only A Novel

The Black Tower by P. D. James

Posted in Books, Fiction, Mystery, P. D. James, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on August 20, 2008

The sentence of death had been communicated, as he suspected such sentences usually were, by grave looks, a certain false heartiness, whispered consultations, a superfluity of clinical tests, and, until he had insisted, a reluctance to pronounce a diagnosis or prognosis. The sentence of life, pronounced with less sophistry when the worst days of his illness were over, had certainly produced the greater outrage.

—P. D. James, in The Black Tower


I’ve read a couple of James’s whodunits, and each time this formidable author never failed to draw me into her stories. It’s not so much that James contrives mysteries with intricate plots—in fact I think her plots are elegantly simple—but that her writing is exquisite. And it is this catchy writing style which makes me keep turning pages at what for me is an unwonted speed. She is also brilliant at conjuring a sense of place and atmosphere, and seems to favor the romance of the English coast as the setting for her stories. And always for this author, there has to be a good dictionary by my side. For James, there is a word for every object and thought, and the appropriate adjectives to describe them.

James contrived what for me is a most likeable sleuth in Commander Adam Dalgliesh, a detective at Scotland Yard who handles murder cases. Commander Dalgliesh is a thoughtful, feeling, sensitive soul, who is also a published poet, and who favors good literature and historic architecture, long country drives out of London, and a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, fruit, and wine. How can I not like such a sensitive and bookish soul? I’ve also happened to watch more recent Mystery! adaptations of a couple of James’s books, and so, inevitably, I picture Martin Shaw whenever I read Commander Dalgliesh. Which is all well and good since I think Shaw is perfect as Dalgliesh.

In The Black Tower, Commander Dalgliesh is not quite his usual keen and robust sleuthing self. A recent reminder of his own mortality has prompted him to seriously reevaluate his career at Scotland Yard, and to come to some life-altering decisions. And so, when, while conscientiously answering a summons from a friend from his childhood, he finds himself surrounded by circumstances which his accustomed gut tells him are suspect, Dalgliesh painstakingly comes up with excuses to the contrary so as not to get himself drawn into detective work. He finds himself at Toynton Grange, home for chronically disabled patients, where he meets forlorn characters, and where more than one death have occurred recently prior to his visit. Creating more than a handful of suspect characters, James had me guessing up until the end, when a physically weak Dalgliesh must once again come to terms with his mortality, and come to a decision about his work. Great scenes at the end.