On the bleak coast of East Anglia, atop a sweep of low cliffs, stands the small theological college of St. Anselm's. On the shore not far away, smothered beneath a fall of sand, lies the body of one of the school's young ordinands. He is the son of Sir Alred Treves, a hugely successful businessman who is accustomed to getting what he wants--and in this case what he wants is for Commander Adam Dalgliesh to investigate his son's death. Although there seems little to be investigated, Dalgliesh agrees. No sooner does he arrive, however, than the college is torn apart by a sacrilegious and horrifying murder, and Dalgliesh finds himself drawn into the labyrinth of an intricate and violent mystery.
Of course, there is a bit more to it: this was written in 2001, not 1931, after all. On one level James foregrounds the decay of Anglicanism and all the values it represents: a little pocket of good taste, tolerance and intellectual rigour is threatened and unappreciated by the world: the North Sea and Blair's Cool Britannia are competing to destroy it. On another level, she prevents us from taking anything at face value by a string of literary jokes: practically all the minor characters have names that will send you trawling through the annals of English literature; most of them turn out to have shelves full of detective stories; we get a character who likes to "commune with his pigs", Lord Emsworth style, but acts in ways merely to imagine which would have given that mild-mannered peer a heart attack; the play-scene from Hamlet turns up with an oddly Trollopean twist. You get the idea. A strange mixture of postmodern playfulness with conservative doom and gloom. Oddly captivating, and just the thing for a winter Sunday afternoon with Radio Three playing in the background...
What an absolute pleasure to encounter a detective novel featuring multiple murders that actually rises above the level of eighth grade reading and writing! James' prose and application of the English language is a pure joy to read. Felicitously structured sentences abound with words like tenebrous, etiolated, castellated, and peregrinations, while well-formed phrases such as "the smell of spice, fugitive as memory, still lingered...""desultory exchange of platitutes" and "the usual sobriquets" substitute for the usual tired mystery prose. After my husband heartily recommended P.D. James, I resisted; after all, the author is a woman in her eighties! James herself inserts a sly jab at those like me, when her character Emma muses "Why was it, she wondered, so difficult to believe that the old had been young, with the strength and animal beauty of youth, had loved, been loved, laughed and been full of youth's unmeditated optimism?" She caught me. And she taught me well. I am a chastened and converted P.D. James fan now.
Interesting moment where knitting provides a clue that not all is well with one of the deaths.
One reviewer described this book as "ponderous" and I agree. The book is long and at times the detail is deep - for some maybe, too deep. The style of author James leads this book to be read slowly and with a dictionary at hand. I enjoyed this book, but found myself starting and finishing a couple other books while following Dalgiesh's investigation. I willed myself to finish this book and in doing so I was entertained and my vocabulary increased.
Set in East Anglia, The weathly father of an about to be ordained student at St. Anselm is not satisfied with the results of the inquest into his son's death--smothered under sand at the crumbling beach cliffs. Adams, who used to spend summers at St. Anselm, and who was to have spent time in the area, accepts to look into the matter. While he is there, an important work of art is defaced and a terrible murder is committed in the church. In this novel, Adam meets a whoman worthy of him--what will happen next?
Mirfields or St. Stephens? You decide
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.
I find P. D. James refreshing to read; her non-series characters (those who are not Dalgliesh, his colleagues, or connected to him personally) are incredibly well written, no matter how peripheral they may be. I’ve begun making a point of picking one up whenever a previous book disappoints me in terms of characterisation – to prove to myself that I’m not just being picky, that it’s possible to infuse any genre with individuals who are neither lazily portrayed, nor overplayed to compensate. There are other female crime writers who are just as strong in this area, but I’m on a P. D. James kick just now, because she also plots and instils atmosphere wonderfully, as well; in this book, the sadness and isolation were layered with beautiful subtlety. Death in Holy Orders seemed a little long-winded in places (there seemed to be more ‘middle’ to this book than was strictly necessary) but a very rewarding read.
The setting - a remote windswept theological college resembling a monstery (though in fact Church of England) - was a nice enough twist on one of Aunt Agatha's remote country houses.
Smetimes something quite trivial annoys me about a book, after which I find it difficult to regain my sympathy.
In this case it was a peculiar note about one of the police officers. She has been so outraged by the Macpherson Report (which found 'institutional racism' in the Metropolitan Police) that she was thinking of leaving the service. "She was illegitimate and brought up ... in one of the bleakest inner city areas. Blacks had been her neighbours ..."
The notion that having black neighbours should be worthy of comment is even more old fashined than the concept of illegitimacy. Pointing out that the Met was racist is akin to the old adage about bears in the woods. In the seventies and eighties racism in the Met was of almost surrealist proportions. It has improved greatly since and the improvement did preceed Macpherson - beginning really with the Scarman report in 1981 which first described the Met as institutionally racist.
All this has nothing much to do with the novel; but it just made me realise how out of touch with the real world this book by an ex Home Office mandarin was.
After that I found the plot increasingly improbable and the conclusion so convoluted as to beggar belief.
No. I don't rate James as the new Christie. Maybe I took it too seriously.