Death in Holy Orders: An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery
Death in Holy Orders is set in an Anglican theological college on a desolate stretch of the East Anglian coast, a locality which she has made particularly her own. When the body of the one of the students is found on the shore smothered by a fall of sand, his weathly father demands that Scotland Yard should re-examine the verdict of accidental death. Commander Dalgliesh has visited St. Anselm’s in his boyhood and, as he is due for a holiday, agrees to pay a visit, expecting no more than a nostaglic return to old haunts and a straightforward examination of the evidence given at the inquest. Instead he finds himself embroiled in one of the most horrific and puzzling cases of his career. Other visitors come to the college on the weekend of his arrival, not all of them with benign intent. One of them will never leave it alive.
Despite challenges from Ruth Rendell and (more recently) Minette Walters, P.D. James’s position as Britain’s Queen of Crime remains largely unassailable. Although a certain reaction has set in to her reputation (and there are those who claim her poetry-loving copper Adam Dalgliesh doesn’t correspond to any of his counterparts in the real world), her detractors can scarcely deny her astonishing literary gifts. More than any other writer, she has elevated the detective story into the realms of literature, with the psychology of the characters treated in the most complex and authoritative fashion. Her plots, too, are full of intriguing detail and studed with brilliantly observed character studies. Who cares if Dalgliesh belongs more in the pages of a book than poking around a graffiti-scrawled council estate? As a policeman, he is considerably more plausible than Doyle’s Holmes, and that’s never stopped us loving the Baker Street sleuth. Death in Holy Orders represents something of a challenge from James to her critics, taking on all the contentious elements and rigorously reinvigorating them. She had admitted that she was finding it increasingly difficult to find new plots for Dalgliesh, and the locale here (a theological college on a lonely stretch of the East Anglian coast) turns out to be an inspired choice. We’re presented with the enclosed setting so beloved of golden age detective writers, and James is able to incorporate her theological interests seamlessly into the plot (but never in any doctrinaire way; the nonbeliever is never uncomfortable). The body of a student at the college is found on the shore, suffocated by a fall of sand. Dalgliesh is called upon to reexamine the verdict of accidental death (which the student’s father would not accept). Having visited the College of St. Anselm in his boyhood, he finds the investigation has a strong nostalgic aspect for him. But that is soon overtaken by the realization that he has encountered the most horrific case of his career, and another visitor to the college dies a horrible death. As an exploration of evil—and as a piece of highly distinctive crime writing—this is James at her nonpareil best. Dalgliesh, too, is rendered with new dimensions of psychological complexity. —Barry Forshaw, Amazon.co.uk
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A number of traditions come seamlessly together in P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders, another of her acclaimed mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Included among those traditions are the Golden Age detective story, the police procedural, the literary gothic, and the Victorian novel, with its stately prose, leisurely pacing, and abundant supply of social, familial, and psychological detail. The result of this eclectic combination is a multilayered narrative that works both as a murder mystery and as a complex meditation on faith, love, loyalty, vengeance, and personal responsibility.
The bulk of the novel takes place at St. Anselm’s, an embattled, isolated theological college on England’s windswept East Anglian coast. When the body of seminarian Ronald Treeves is literally unearthed from a suffocating pile of sand, a coroner’s jury turns in a verdict of accidental death. Arms manufacturer Sir Alred Treeves, Ronald’s adoptive father, questions the verdict and arranges to have Dalgliesh reinvestigate the boy’s death.
Dalgliesh arrives at St. Anselm’s at a particularly troubled moment. A longtime employee of the college has just died of an apparent heart attack, and a number of outside visitors have arrived to spend a restful rural weekend. Among the guests are a pair of visiting academics, a policeman on the verge of a breakdown, and Archdeacon Matthew Crampton, an ambitious cleric with a guilty secret and a vested interest in closing down the college. Crampton has had a history of hostile encounters, both with fellow guests and with various members of the seminary staff. On the morning after his arrival, his body is found, savagely beaten, in the sanctified precincts of St. Anselm’s Church.
As Dalgliesh soon learns, a great many of the weekend visitors had motives for murdering the archdeacon. Surrounding himself with a picked crew of Scotland Yard regulars, Dalgliesh spearheads a wide-ranging investigation that illuminates the events behind Crampton’s death by first exposing the buried secrets of several interconnected lives. In the end,
Dalgliesh—poet, sleuth, and solitary widower—successfully identifies a resourceful killer and opens himself up to the possibility of romantic and spiritual renewal.
Death in Holy Orders is an engaging, old-fashioned, morally attractive novel by an 80-year-old master of the craft who continues to write with grace, clarity, and psychological acuity. At an age when most writers have long since passed their creative peaks, James has given us a fresh, quietly enthralling novel that raises large, important questions and solidifies its
author’s position as one of the dominant figures of late-20th-century crime fiction. (Bill Sheehan)