This was my first foray into the writing of P.D. James. I’ve seen the Dalgliesh mysteries mentioned here and there around the interwebs, and decided to give them a try. I ended up reading the first 4 1/2 books in the series, but it just wasn’t for me, so I decided not to finish. I read:
- Cover Her Face (1962)
- A Mind to Murder (1963)
- Unnatural Causes (1967)
- Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
- The Black Tower (partially) (1975)
Cover Her Face was a 3.5/5 read for me, and a decent, although not riveting, start to the series. Dalgliesh himself is honestly a very minor player in this book – he doesn’t even appear until page 59, and most of the story is more about the murder victim’s family than it is about the detective. Virtually everyone in the book was unlikable, even Dalgliesh’s potential love interest. One of the characters in particular (Stephen) was just flat obnoxious, and I basically dreaded every time he appeared on the page. Still, the story and mysteries were decent, and I was quite willing to give the next book a go.
I liked the second book a great deal more, and gave it a 4* rating. While the initial cast of characters was a bit confusing, once I got everyone sorted, the mystery was quite engaging. The pacing was very good and the red herrings excellent.
Unnatural Causes went a bit off the rails in my mind. It was an incredibly depressing read, with yet another set of characters out of whom not a single one was pleasant. Dalgliesh’s role in the entire thing was quite murky (since he was technically on holiday), and it made the whole book feel off-kilter. James also used what is virtually one of my least-favorite writing techniques of all time: where the main character has a sudden revelation and magically knows everything that happened… but doesn’t let us know until multiple other characters have been told. And in this case, there was (a) not really any way that I could have arrived (or jumped rather) to the conclusion Dalgliesh did, and (b) the information was obviously just being withheld so there would be this grand revelation in the end. I don’t mind this method as much if I’m following a character who’s a bit slow (say, Dr. Hastings in a Poirot tale), or when the author has at least given me ALL the clues so that I could have figured it out if I was clever enough – but neither of those things was true here, so it just felt awkward, with things like, “he explained everything to the detective, who shook his head in disbelief.” That makes for aggravating, rather than interesting, reading. And, like I said, the ending honestly felt like a cheat. I just could NOT grasp how Dalgliesh could have POSSIBLY figured out how the murder was committed. I had trouble understanding how the murderer thought of it to begin with! It was absurdly complicated (and honestly rather disturbing, ugh). All in all, this was a 2* read for me.
Book #4 was somewhat better (3.5/5), but still just weirdly depressing. There were weird things that I guess were supposed to be red herrings, but ended up just feeling random and never really had a good explanation, like the way that one of the suspects was once engaged to a man who died, and then it turns out that another suspect is that man’s brother… and Suspect #1 had an affair with Suspect #2. But… why?? Why was there a connection between them?? I guess this is just supposed to throw me off?? But it seemed very out of character for Suspect #1 so I just felt confused. In another chapter, one of Dalgliesh’s underlings has sex with one of the witnesses, and then spends the evening dancing with someone else he’s supposed to be questioning, and the entire chapter felt like a bad dream. And of course, once again, I had to suffer through not getting to know what Dalgliesh knows, for not really any good reason:
“But I think I know how it was done.” [said Dalgliesh.]
He described his theory. Sergeant Masterson, cross with himself for having missed the obvious, said: “Of course. It must have been done that way.”
“Not must, Sergeant. It was probably done that way.”
But Sergeant Masterson had seen an objection and voiced it.
Dalgliesh replied: “But that wouldn’t apply to a woman. A woman could do it easily.”
Do you see why this annoys me?? It’s not necessarily because I don’t get to know what Dalgliesh is thinking – it’s because there is an entire conversation going on about something that I don’t get to know. And, for instance, I never find out what Masterson’s objection was, even after I find out what the heck they were talking about! (Which, by the way, doesn’t happen for at least another hundred pages.)
Still, despite feeling a bit meh about everything so far, I picked up The Black Tower. And I can’t explain exactly why I didn’t finish it. I think because James had set up an entirely new cast of characters, all unlikable, all depressing, in a depressing setting, and I just found that I couldn’t face another 300 pages of Dalgliesh moping about his job (because he is a great one for being morose and withdrawn, constantly agonizing over some life decision, always on the verge of a crisis, etc.). So I stopped. And I sent the whole batch of books back to the library and moved on with my life.
While these weren’t bad books, they just weren’t for me. I’m not fond of a dark and dreary brooding hero who is full of introspection. I don’t like it when I feel like I wouldn’t care if someone came by and poisoned the entire cast of characters. I hate it when authors withhold information just so their hero can appear even more clever later (even if it makes the writing awkward in the short term). I don’t like finishing a book and feeling vaguely sad about life. So while I can see why people enjoy these stories – because the writing is good and the mysteries are decent – I just couldn’t get into them myself.