For some reason, I was recently in the mood for a murder mystery. I don’t know, maybe it was just that it’s one of the few genres I haven’t done yet this year. At any rate, the best murder mysteries, as everyone knows, are written by British women. Thus, I picked up P.D. James’s Death In Holy Orders. I knew James from reading The Children of Men a few years ago when it was made into a movie. (Incidentally, I highly recommend that book–her vision of a globally infertile future and the combination of ennui and hedonism it breeds is eerily prophetic. Sadly, in real life, we’ve voluntarily gone the way of the demographic death spiral. But I digress…)
I was attracted to this one because the murder and investigation in question take place at a small, rural Anglican college. I’ve always liked reading about the Catholic-oriented priesthoods. The scholarship, the history, the tradition, the rigor and discipline–very cool to me. Don’t even get me started on how awesome Jesuits are. Anyway, as expected, James did her research and wrote very approvingly of her setting.
Her style is never dazzling, but I love reading the prose of an older, refined woman who isn’t afraid to pepper her story with the occasional “anodyne” or “genuflected” (both of which stood out to me as I read). The downside of this, though, is that she seems overly fond of the word “discordant,” using it frequently in the first half of the book, sometimes within a few pages or even paragraphs of each other. Why didn’t an editor catch that?
But we didn’t come to this party for the decorations, we came for the games, and James delivers. She manages to introduce and develop a surprisingly large cast of main and supporting characters in the little space of St. Anselm’s. I appreciated that she doesn’t tease or condescend towards the reader–she’ll devote an entire chapter to mundane police procedure when it’s realistic, and she never tries to convince you that one guy is the killer when really you know that it’s too soon in the story for that to come out (this isn’t Law and Order, after all). To the contrary, when the real killer is found, there’s no shocking last minute revelation, a la Agatha Christie. Our detective hero carefully tracks down the last few clues over the last few chapters, by which time we’ve all been fairly well convinced who the killer is. And we’re right!
Don’t let that make you think the whole thing is linear or predictable. Oh, no, not at all. Over the course of the book’s four deaths, we find that they’re connected, but not in any easy way that we might guess at.
Death In Holy Orders is a satisfying British crime story that combines quiet, pleasant narration to a refreshingly well-rounded and dignified narrative.
But that rapturous theological college, with its green grounds, ancient art, classes in Greek and dinner readings from Trollope…maybe I did come to this party for the decorations, after all.
Final Grade: B