Death in Holy Orders


(This column was first published in the May 24, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


The following squib from the back of her latest mystery, Death in Holy Orders, tells it all: "P. D. James is the author of sixteen previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Great Britain's Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 P. D. James celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to be in Earnest.The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. She lives in London and Oxford."


I need say little more about this British elder stateswoman of crime. Every additional book by her at her age is a gift and Death in Holy Orders is no exception to this rule.


This is another in Ms. James' series of books in which Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dagliesh plays a central role. (A few of her novels, among them one of her most exciting, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman,are about a young female private detective, Cordelia Gray.) In this book, Commander Dagliesh has been sent to a rural ecclesiastic school known to him from his own youth to look into what appears to be the suicide of a student. Shortly after his not at all welcome arrival and in one case even before he reaches St. Anselms College, however, additional deaths -- at least one an obvious murder -- follow. Here is one being committed:


"She carried her notebook from the table and placed it in the drawer of the bureau. Then she changed her spectacles for the pair most comfortable for watching television, switched on the set and settled herself in the high winged armchair with the remote control resting on its arm. She was getting a little deaf. The noise swelled alarmingly before she adjusted the volume and the introductory music came to an end. She would probably fall asleep in the chair, but the effort of getting up and going to bed seemed beyond her.


"She was almost dozing when she felt a draught of cooler air and was aware, more by instinct than by sound, that someone had come into the room. The latch of the door clicked down. Stretching her head round the side of the chair, she saw who it was and said, 'Oh, it's you. I expect you were surprised to find my light still on. I was just thinking of going to bed.'


"The figure came up behind the armchair and she bent her head upwards, looking up, waiting for a response. And then the hands came down, strong hands wearing yellow rubber gloves. They pressed against her mouth and closed her nose, forcing her head back against the chair.


"She knew that this was death but she felt no fear, only an immense surprise and a tired acceptance. To struggle would have been useless, but she had no wish to struggle, only to go easily and quickly and without pain. Her last earthly sensation was the cold smoothness of the glove against her face and the smell of latex in her nostrils as her heart gave its last compulsive beat and was stilled."


And here is another just discovered:


"Nothing more was said until they reached the sacristy door. Father Sebastian fumbled for his keys, but Dalgliesh said, 'I'll do this, Father.'


"He unlocked the door, locked it after them, and they passed into the church. He had left on the light over the Doom, and the horror at its foot was clearly visible. Father Sebastian's steps didn't falter as he moved towards it. He didn't speak, but looked first at the desecration of the painting and then down at his dead adversary. Then he made the sign of the cross and knelt in silent prayer. Watching him, Dalgliesh wondered what words Father Sebastian was finding to communicate with his God. He could hardly be praying for the Archdeacon's soul; that would have been anathema to Crampton's uncompromising Protestantism.


"He wondered, too, what words he would find appropriate if he were praying at this moment. 'Help me to solve this case with the least pain to the innocent, and protect my team.' The last time he remembered having prayed with passion and with the belief that his prayer was valid had been when his wife was dying, and it had not been heard -- or, if heard, had not been answered. He thought about death, its finality, its inevitability. Was part of the attraction of his job the illusion it gave that death was a mystery that could be solved, and that with the solution all the unruly passions of life, all doubts and all fears, could be folded away like a garment?


"And then he heard Father Sebastian speaking as if he had become aware of Dalgliesh's silent presence and needed to involve him, even if only as a listener in his secret ministry of expiation. The familiar words spoken in his beautiful voice were an affirmation, not a prayer, and they so uncannily echoed Dalgliesh's thoughts that he heard them as if for the first time, and with a frisson of awe.


"'And thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.'"


Mickey Spillane she's not. Ms. James is concerned with character and place rather than action. Her novels are quiet, almost Victorian stories notwithstanding the often vicious crimes on which they are based. And despite this lack of action I find her tales compelling and, yes, even exciting. There is, after all, an unknown murderer lurking in the background.


As a kind of bonus, Ms. James is not without a sense of humor. Consider the following passage. Detective Inspector Piers Tarrant is Dagliesh's assistant:


"Dalgliesh said with all the force he could command, 'Father, are you at all interested in helping me to catch this murderer?'


"Father Peregrine, not in the least intimidated by Dalgliesh's six feet two inches towering over him, appeared to consider the question as a proposition rather than an accusation. He said, 'Murderers should be caught, certainly, but I don't really think I'm competent to help you, Commander. I have no experience of police investigation. I think you should call on Father Sebastian or Father John. They both read a great deal of detective fiction, and that probably gives them an insight. Father Sebastian lent me a volume once. I think it was by a Mr. Hammond Innes. It was too clever for me, I'm afraid.'


"Piers, speechless, raised his eyes to heaven and turned his back on the debacle. Father Peregrine dropped his eyes to his book, but then showed signs of animation and looked up again.


"'Just a thought. This murderer, having done his murdering, would surely want to make his getaway. I expect he had a getaway car ready outside the west gate. The expression is familiar to me. I can't believe, Commander, that he would think it a convenient time to do his personal laundry. The washing machine is a kipper.'


"Piers muttered 'red herring,' and took a step away from the desk as if he could bear no more.


"Father Peregrine said, 'Kipper or red herring, the meaning is the same. Red herrings were, of course, the staple protein on this coast for many years. It's a curious word. I imagine the etymology is Middle English kypre from the Old English cypera. I'm surprised you don't use it in place of 'red herring.' You could say that an investigation was 'kippered' when its success was jeopardized by irrelevant and misleading information.' He paused, then added, 'Like my note, I'm afraid.'


"Dalgliesh said, 'And you saw and heard nothing when you left your room?'


"'As I have explained, Commander, I have no memory of having left my room. However, the evidence of my note and the fact that the machine was turned off seem incontrovertible. Certainly if anyone had entered my room to take the postcard I should have heard. I'm sorry not to be more helpful.'


"Father Peregrine again turned his attention to his books, and Dalgliesh and Piers left him to his work.


"Outside the library, Piers said, 'I don't believe it. The man's mad. And he's supposed to be competent to teach postgraduates!'


"'And does it brilliantly, so I'm told. I can believe it. He wakes, hears a noise he detests, pads out half asleep and picks up what he thinks is his usual note, then fumbles back into bed. The difficulty is that he doesn't for one moment believe that anyone in St. Anselm's is a murderer. He doesn't admit the possibility to his mind. It's the same with Father John and the brown cloak. Neither of them is trying to obstruct us, they are not being deliberately unhelpful. None of them thinks like a policeman, and our questions seem an irrelevance. They refuse to accept even the possibility that someone at St. Anselm's was responsible.'


"Piers said, 'Then they're in for one hell of a shock. And Father Sebastian? Father Martin?'


"'They've seen the body, Piers. They know where and how. The question is, do they know who?'"


P. D. James' novels are literally strewn with characters -- I counted two dozen in this book - yet I came in short order to know each of them well. I find that quite remarkable and it only adds to my admiration for this distinguished author.