Cover Her Face by P D James
Often, when I finish reading a really, really good novel, I have a hard time settling into another good, but not as good as the last, novel. That is when I turn to the cottage bookshelves – many of them packed full of slightly mildewed old mystery novels by our favourite authors of the past 30 years or more. This past summer it has been P D James my husband and I have been reading. The first in her series featuring Detective-Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is Cover Her Face, published in 1962.
Cover Her Face is very much in the Agatha Christie style. We have the British country house, a family whose wealth has eroded, but is doing their best to keep up appearances – including hiring an unwed mother to help out. The head of the Maxie family is Simon, now confined to bed, soon to die. The son, Stephen, the heir, is a surgeon, unreliable as a marriage prospect except for the name – he needs an heiress. The daughter, Deborah, is a widow, reluctant to look for love again. Hanging around are Felix, in love with Deborah, and Catherine, in love with Stephen. Mrs. Maxie nurses her husband with the help of Martha who has worked for the family most of her life – now assisted by Sally, the unwed mother – the very attractive unwed mother.
Into this mix is thrown a vicar, the local doctor, the woman who runs the home for unwed mothers, and various local dignitaries and scoundrels. Of course, one of them is our murderer, and one the victim. And, Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate. The household is interviewed and with many twists and turns the truth of the matter is found out – but not revealed to the reader until the final pages. A perfect murder mystery – and on to the next A Mind to Murder, published in 1963.
This time the action takes place at the Steen Clinic, a London psychiatric hospital. This is the sort of place that P D James knew well. Her own husband had returned from the war and been hospitalized with a mental illness. There is again a cast of characters who work at the clinic – one of whom is murdered. We get to know the many suspects – and the innocent red herrings – as the investigation progresses. It is 1963 and though electric shock therapy is still common, it is also the beginning of experimentation with LSD therapy, as well as consultation with the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts – many of who are very odd characters themselves. It is difficult for the investigators – and the reader – to know who might be the murderer. As always we have P D James keen observances of the human condition, and Dalgliesh’s own examination of it all, and the eventual conclusion with a twist and double twist.
Phyllis Dorothy James went on to write twelve novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, and several others, every year or two or three, until her death at the age of 94 in 2014. Now that so many of the new fall releases are arriving, I will have to put the rest of the series on hold. I will look forward to re-reading the rest next summer.