February 11, 2004

The Murder Room, by P.D. James

I actually bought this book in November but put off reading it right away so I could savor it in January when things slow down. And, darn, then I forgot about it until I rearranged my bookshelf the other day. It was like my birthday all over again.

I like P.D. James mysteries, a lot. The way she sets up the plot, develops all the characters and then brings in Dalgliesh to sort thru the mess of the crime is so elegantly done I find it hard to class her with other mystery writers. She's more mainstream in her writing; more literary than genre. And she does it again in this book.

The DuPayne Museum is a privately held museum on the outskirts of London dedicated to preserving the social and political event of the years between WWI and WWII. Of special interest is the room dedicated to the famous murders and their results of the period called The Murder Room. It's full of ghastly photos and exhibits of crimes committed and persons found guilty.

The three trustees are the children of the founder and all must sign the renewal of the lease on the building for the museum to continue. They don't get along and one is refusing to sign. They employ a curator who is a former government official now writing a book on some esoteric topic concerning the period, a receptionist/office manager who has the personality of a grumpy crab and a housekeeper who enjoys her work and especially the home she has found in the cottage attached to the museum.

And then one night one of the trustees is set on fire, alive, in his car in exactly the same manner as one of the exhibits of the Murder Room. And all the folks involved in the murder have motive and possibly opportunity.

The book is one of her better ones, I thought. And considering that she turned 80 in 2000, I am in awe that she is still able to plot and write with such manifest skill. But I do think it's the last Dalgliesh mystery. There are two many final notes in the book. Too many of the main characters were old people looking at a graceful exit from the stage. And at the end, when Dalgliesh throws back his head and laughs his triumph aloud, I was sure there weren't going to be any more stories well told about him. Read it and see if you agree.

Posted by Deb English at February 11, 2004 08:06 PM

Phil said:

Deb, I should have praised you when I first read this review, but I kept putting it off. I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I've read that the crime in this one seems almost incidental, because the first murder doesn't occur until, what, 200 pages into it? And the crime is finally explained by some police underling, not Dalgliesh or his assistant, Amy. But you have enjoyed James' style and atmosphere, haven't you, more so than her crime story?

Deb said:

Phil, yes, it's almost as much the language as the plot that I enjoy. And the whole business of not actually having the murder occur until well into the book is one of the devices she uses. She creates complete characters and then ruthlessly kills them off. She's done it at least once before that I can recall.