Apr 21, 11
Read from April 18 to 21, 2011
A traditional country house murder mystery (only this time the country house is an exclusive private cosmetic surgery clinic) with all the creaking cliches of the genre. Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, goes there to have a childhood scar removed and is bumped off in the night. Utterly implausibly, most of the clinic's staff seem to have some prior connection with her. Not only that, but they all have far-fetched, sensationalist backstories and all talk to each other in either melodramatic cliches or huge chunks of exposition ("Obviously you influenced him. It would be surprising if you hadn't. You're older by eight years. With your mother an invalid for most of his childhood, it's not surprising that he listens to you. Didn't you more or less bring him up?")
As always, PD James can't resist showing off, shoehorning erudite references to Holman Hunt, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen into the novel, to try to prove she's a cut above the usual churner-out of whodunnits. I quite like some of her earlier books, but I do think her reputation as a "literary" detective novelist is inflated and it makes me judge her more, not less, harshly than writers who're cheerfully honest about their unbelievable plots, their cardboard characterisation and their wooden dialogue. Yes, James tries to make her characters three-dimensional by giving them backstories and writing from their points of view, but that's of limited merit when (a) most of their backstories are so unbelievable (b) she's juggling so many characters, it's hard to do them all justice.
Just about every whodunnit stock motif is invoked here, from prehistoric stone circles which have a historic association with witchcraft, to secret illegitimate children.
And the ending is messy, confusing and disappointing, relying partly on things that have been known to the reader for most of the novel and partly on an overcomplex, implausible backstory which is revealed too late to allow the reader to guess.
Still, at least James shows some awareness of her reliance on stock elements of the genre (the detectives exchange arch remarks from time to time, like "[The murder is] in a manor house." "That makes a change, ma'am."). And, for all it's faults, the book is compelling enough - I certainly had no trouble finishing it.