Book Review: Cover Her Face by P.D. James

After asking for suggestions for what to read this year, one idea that cropped up was to read a murder mystery. It’s not my normal cup of tea so this was a step out of my comfort zone as far as fiction reading goes. Like my picking up of Iain Banks last year, P.D. James was another writer of whom I had only heard, but was reminded of when she died a few months ago.

While I have had an aversion to reading murder mysteries, I have seen quite a few adaptations, though I don’t recall seeing any that were taken from the works of P.D. James. Much more commonly adapted are the works of Agatha Christie. They tend to be extremely formulaic with a murder happening after some gathering where there is a disagreement and the location is isolated, with just a handful of possible suspects.

It is a formula that P.D. James sticks to rigorously here. We open with a very old fashioned dinner party. The one variation is that the people present at the dinner party aren’t the ones who end up in the house. So one may notice the presence of a vicar here but he is a fleeting character who doesn’t appear again (a violation of Chekhov’s Gun). I think what frustrated me was that in anticipation of a murder (for that is what the reader knows they will get, even before reading the first sentence) one tries to see in the characters who will be murdered and who the suspects are. So we instantly start with a slanted view that one doesn’t read any other kind of fiction – or at least none that I can think of readily as I write this at quarter to eleven in the evening.

As morning breaks, we discover that someone has been killed, which should come as no surprise. As an aside, it might be interesting to market a book as a murder mystery, where the mystery is when will it occur, but it never does. Shortly afterwards, we get to meet the detective who will solve the crime, Adam Dalgleish. He does not come across as a particularly multi-dimensional character. There is an attempt at giving him a backstory, but it feels rather forced and doesn’t sit within the narrative terribly well.

That said, the start of the investigation did keep me turning over the pages. Though it was relatively easy to put down, it wasn’t the kind of book that you get half way through and then peer at out of the corner of your eye, not really wanting to finish it. There were a number of irritating features. For one, there were characters (one important) who were introduced after the murder, so it seems that the idea of working it out for yourself is not on the cards. If there is to be any joy in a murder mystery, it is having all the facts available at an early stage that allow you to be able to work it out. The rest of the book may shed light on these pieces of evidence, making you think about them in new ways. This is not what P.D. James does, though.

So I was just wanting to get to the end in order to see who did it, but even when the murderer was revealed, there was no great line of reasoning. They just confessed under no real pressure. There was no incontrovertible evidence presented that compelled them to confess. All the way through the book, the sympathy for the victim seems sorely lacking. There is all the sense of a mystery, with one family in particular coming under a suspicion that no one dares speak aloud, but there is no sense of tragedy.

The proliferation of characters in a relatively short book means there is no space to give any of them depth. So as I write this review about a week after having finished it, not one of the characters really stuck in my mind. They are like the faces I see on the Underground every day; they may have some distinctive features, but not one of them lingers.

If there is anything to be said by way of mitigation, it is that this is the first of the Adam Dalgleish novels and so may well represent a writer who is aping those who have gone before her and who has not yet found her voice. I may come back and read a later novel in the series, but I’m no great hurry to do so.

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