At the end of P.D. James's last mystery, her hero, detective Adam Dalgliesh, was finally starting to open his thoughtful but pathologically private life to love in the form of young Cambridge don Emma Lavenham. Her newest, The Murder Room, takes him all the way there, provoking persistent mild comparisons (not entirely to its advantage) to Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night and providing a brand-new framework for a Dalgliesh tale--this one the 13th. There's an almost elegiac quality to the novel, which is set, as usual, in an insular, superficially moribund institution--in this case a small museum devoted to English life between the wars. But despite James's easily identifiable style, a hallmark of which is her idiosyncratic social conservatism, her writing is never simple. No character, however minor, exists without a carefully considered psychological history, so that at her very best (as in 1985's A Taste for Death), James's ability to juggle character with rich observations of place, exacting plotting, lucid, adult morality, and a cool, sometimes terrifying eye for human transgression make critics fumble for verbs to describe her effect on the genre. In the years since A Taste For Death her novels have kept most of these balls in the air, if never all at once in quite the same way. In The Murder Room the best bits lie in character rather than plot and locale. But the Dupayne Museum is an interesting choice of setting, allowing James to develop the theory that murders reveal as much about our time periods as clothing or music. In one scene, set in the museum's Murder Room, she employs a ringing cell phone--the utility of which is the subject of an ongoing debate in the story--to bring horror to light with great creepy effect. James will appear (with Sara Paretsky) at 6 PM on Monday, November 24, at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, 312-747-4080.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alixe Buckerfield de la Roche.