I've read a great many novels by PD James, and until a few weeks ago, if you'd asked me, I might have told you that I'd probably read them all. But recently I happened on a couple that were completely new to me, and dashed through them in quick succession. The Skull Beneath the Skin (1985) was the second (and last) Cordelia Gray mystery, published ten years after Cordelia's first appearance in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Black Tower (1975) the fifth of the much longer Adam Dalgleish series.
It was interesting to read them end to end. Though the dates of their first publication were ten years apart, there were several noticeable similarities. Both are set in remote locations on or near the Dorset coast (The Skull Beneath the Skin takes place on an invented island), both feature rather bizarre and sinister households presided over by decidedly strange ageing men with peculiar menservants, and in both novels a small Victorian marble carving is crucial to the events surrounding the murder.
Of the two, I preferred The Skull Beneath the Skin. I think this owed a lot to the presence of Cordelia, an attractively unusual though highly professional private detective. In this novel she is asked to go to a reconstructed Victorian castle where a semi-amateur production of Webster's Jacobean drama The Duchess of Malfi is to be played for just one performance, with the celebrated actress and ageing beauty Clarissa Lyle in the leading part. Lyle has been receiving death threats, and her husband has hired Cordelia to protect her. Though she does her best, needless to say Clarissa is murdered. Most people on the island seem to have good reason to do away with her -- of course it's a classic locked room, or in this case cut-off island mystery -- but the perpetrator is, again needless to say, the person who seems the least likely in every possible way. And yes, Cordelia does work it out, though she is distressed by what she uncovers.
I have to admit I've never been all that crazy about the sensitive, poetry-writing, wife-mourning Commissioner Adam Dalgleish. In The Black Tower he is not in a good way at all. In fact as the novel begins he has just been discharged from hospital where he has been suffering from some very serious though unspecified illness, and has been told to take time off and convalesce. So he decides to answer an appeal from an old family friend, Father Baddeley, the chaplain at Toynton Grange, a home for people with incurable illnesses. Father Baddeley believes there's something sinister going on at the Grange, but by the time Adam arrives, he has died, apparently from natural causes. The patients start popping off too, and Adam -- who has made up his mind to resign from the police -- is drawn into solving the mystery. In actual fact the Grange is about the most sinister and gothic place you can imagine -- the owner and most of the people who work for him go around in monks' habits for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, and there's a very creepy black tower just along the cliffs where strange and worrying things go on. Naturally Adam gets sucked into an investigation, protesting every inch of the way, and of course he manages to solve the crime/s in the nick of time.
It sounds as if I'm being a bit sniffy about these two novels, but in fact they were both highly readable if somewhat macabre. I commented to a friend when I was reading the first one that it was nice to read some grown-up writing for a change. Good well written prose, plenty of literary references, intelligent and thoughtful, and clearly aimed at well-read adults. Call me old-fashioned if you like, and you'd probably be right. But James certainly knew how to craft a complex plot and to create excellent, if rather odd and rarely likeable, characters. Maybe there are one or two more of her novels that have slipped through my radar -- I rather hope so. She was a hugely talented writer and an unforgettable woman.