Death in holy orders

by P. D. James

Hardcover, 2001




London : Faber and Faber, 2001.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
The title makes it sound as though it's going to be a parody of the classic English murder story, and to some extent that's what it is. There are a few minor departures from tradition — the suspects are assembled in the library at the beginning of the story not the end, for instance — but in essence the story sticks quite closely to the time-hallowed formulae. Closed community; enough secrets, scandals and unsuspected connections to give practically everyone a motive; a succession of deaths that might or might not be murder, and might or might not be linked.

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...
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LibraryThing member MusicMom41
This is the novel before The Murder Room. This is where Adam meets Emma. The story takes place in a small theological seminary which is in danger of being shut down because the Church thinks it is out dated (at least some of them do.) This is also the place where Dalgliesh spent his summers when he was a boy and his father would trade with inner city pastors to give them a break. The story is interesting but even more interesting is the insight we get into the character of Adam Dalgliesh—even more than in Murder Room. An enjoyable read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
Another well crafted Adam Dalgliesh murder mystery. James is at her most English in setting the murder in the elitist seminary St. Anselm's for the highest of high church Anglicanism. About half of the many characters could never appear in an American mystery. Dalgliesh is called by a British business magnate to investigate the apparant suicide of his son, who had been an ordinand at the seminary. During the investigation, a somewhat liberal Archdeacon of the Church is murdered in the chapel. The murder had to be an inside job, and so the resident priests, students, and local workers are all suspects. In the course of Dalgleish's examination, James has the opportunity to explore disaffection from religion, the role of the Church of England in modern society, and even the issue of priestly pedophilia. In the end, all our questions are answered by a perpetrator probably more voluble and confessatory than most, so that the reader can be satisfied as well as Dalgleish. But it's a small cavil - we needed to know, after all! Half the fun of the book redounds from the veddy veddy Englishness of it all.


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.

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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
A young theology student is found on a beach and is thought to be an accidental death until other people start dying.

Interesting moment where knitting provides a clue that not all is well with one of the deaths.
LibraryThing member Crowyhead
Another excellent James mystery. I loved the setting for this one -- an Anglican seminary on the English coast. Dalgliesh returns to St. Anselm's, where he spent several happy summers as a boy, to investigate the death of a seminary student. The student was killed in the collapse of a sandy cliff, but it is not clear whether his death was accidental, suicide, or even murder. There's loads of intrigue, as three subsequent deaths expose the priests and students to scrutiny and their lives are laid bare.… (more)
LibraryThing member NellieMc
I decided to read all of the Adam Daigliesh mysteries in one fell swoop and am glad I did. First, they are classic British mysteries all well-deserving of the respect P.D. James has earned for them and all are a good read. However, what is interesting is to watch the author develop her style from the early ones to the later ones. And, in fact, A Shroud for a Nightingale and The Black Tower (the fourth and fifth in the series) is where she crosses the divide. The later books have much more character development -- both for the players and the detectives -- make Dalgleish more rounded and are generally much more than a good mystery yarn -- they're fine novels that happen to be mysteries. The first three books (Cover Her Face, A Mind to Murder, Unnatural Causes) are just that much more simplistic. But read any or all -- she's a great writer and they are definitely worth the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
Set in Lowestoft, just down the road from me, this is an excellently constructed novel based around a retreat. The whodunnit nature of the book is superbly handled and, I would be awarding five stars, without question, if it were not for Father John. Father John has been imprisoned for offences against young choristers under his supervision. Archdeacon Crampton, the victim, assisted the police in making their case against Father John and, we repeatedly get the other characters chastising the archdeacon for his unsporting behaviour to a fellow member of the church. I can only assume that this represents the author's views, to which, of course, she is fully entitled, but did grate, more than a little.… (more)
LibraryThing member eleanorigby
Dagliesh mysteries are all good. He is an introspective detective cum poet. A literary take on the mystery.
LibraryThing member Grandeplease
Death in Holy Orders is the first P.D James tale I have read. I plan on reading others. While Adam Dalgiesh of the Scotland Yard conducts a secondary investigation of a death at a theological college more deaths occur. The investigation is the backbone of the book.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member MrsLee
This is not my favorite kind of detective story. No humor to speak of. Inspector Dalgleash is admirable, but not engaging. The mystery and story are good, but a bit too much spelling out the nasty details of peoples sex lives for me to enjoy it. I like theose details to be a mystery too. Something I can imagine, or not, if I want to. This won't stay on my shelves.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaulsu
An Adam Dalgliesh mystery. Fun, with plenty of murders and suspects to go around. Nothing profound about it, but good for spring break!
LibraryThing member audryh
Dagliesh investigates a death of a seminary student in a small seminary where he had spent time as a boy. Seminary to be closed, sold; inheritance?
LibraryThing member horacewimsey
Another great one from Baroness James. Maybe the outcomes have gotten a bit predictable by now...well, not predictable, as such. Let's just say, when it's all said and done and you find out who the murderer is, you get the distinct feeling you've read the story before.
LibraryThing member DowntownLibrarian
Many years ago, when I was a bookseller, we used to put a favorite author's name on our nametags as an alias. I picked P. D. James. I've never regretted my choice.
LibraryThing member AnneliM
An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery.
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?… (more)
LibraryThing member GavinBowtell
There were rather more unsympathetic characters in this novel than there are in others I thought, perhaps that is why some readers have been dissatisfied with this novel.

Mirfields or St. Stephens? You decide
LibraryThing member judithrs
Death in Holy Orders. P.D. James. 2001. I always forget what a wonderful writer James is. She is such a pleasure to read. Adam Dalgliesh returns to an Anglo/Catholic seminary to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the students. Most of the faculty and several of the students all become suspects before the mystery is solved. Throughout the novel James also presents both sides of the liberal/conservative views of the Church of England.… (more)
LibraryThing member deep220
What a great murder mystery and a throw back to the old school detective novels. A body is discovered on the coast of England. Accident, suicide, or murder? When Adam Dalgliesh comes to investigate, readers will know it must be murder. Then an old woman is murdered, and the plot thickens. Dalgliesh begins to suspect it has something to do with an event from the past: incest, a secret marriage, thievery... When a third body, that of a High Church Archdeacon, turns up, the hunt is on. My first P.D James novel and I am looking forward to other couple I have collecting dust on my shelves.… (more)
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
Adam Dalghiesh investigates small theological college on coast — murders — very good!

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member eleanor_eader
In Death in Holy Orders, eleventh in the Adam Dalgliesh crime fiction series, his planned vacation is rerouted to a place he once stayed as a boy, a small religious college in an isolated coastal region, where a young ordinand’s death has been designated as an accident, but an anonymous letter to his father has since aroused suspicion - Dalgliesh arrives to find not one suspicious death at the college, but two, and these are followed by a brutal and very obvious murder.

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.
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LibraryThing member GeorgeBowling
This was my first James, and for a long time I was enjoying it as a bit of old-fashioned Agatha Christe-esqe escapism.

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.
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LibraryThing member es135
Readers have come to expect genuine, human characters, unique settings, and a unique plot from P.D. James. In this novel, she delivers on every level. The Catholic church carries a certain amount of mystery in itself, so it made a perfect place for a murder story. As usual, James takes her time in drawing each character, making readers emotionally invested in the novel. This is a really great crime novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member jakcb
love her descriptions. great mystery
LibraryThing member jillrhudy
The murderer was revealed too early and I kept expecting a big twist at the end which never came. Enjoyable overall; author was careful in introducing new characters so that they were interesting and not intrusive.
LibraryThing member brendanus
Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, known professionally as P. D. James, was an English crime writer. She rose to fame for her series of detective novels starring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh. Wikipedia

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