December 8, 2017


Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

Cover Her Face, by PD James
288 pages, Faber & Faber

Review by Pat Black

What do the English do better than anyone else? That’s a question for our age.

I’ll start the bidding with “country house murder mysteries”. Cover Her Face, PD James’ debut in the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh series, is a perfect example of the genre. It was first published in the early 1960s, but its spiritual home is England between the wars.

The novel’s basic framing follows an exact template for this type of story. There’s a country manor; there’s a well-to-do family; there are secrets, lies, animosities and jealousies; of course, there is a body; and then, an inspector calls.

A maid for the Maxie family, Sally Jupp, has been murdered in her bed. She was strangled in the night, but it seems she was drugged first. It looks as if the killer could only have gotten in and out via a window. There’s little evidence to go on, but Scotland Yard’s man, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, is sure of one thing: the killer was someone staying at the house that night.

There’s a fair cast of characters to choose from, within and without the Maxie family, all with a motive for killing the young, unmarried mother. There’s number one son Steven Maxie, the doctor, who proposed to the girl the night before she was killed - to everyone’s surprise. There’s his sister, Deborah Riscoe, nee Maxie, who confessed to hating the girl because “she has a child, and I do not”.

There’s Mr Maxie, the family patriarch – confined to his bed, but is he as much of an invalid as he seems? Then there’s Martha, the no-nonsense housekeeper who takes a dislike to the beautiful intruder on her patch. Felix Herne, a rakish, sardonic figure and friend of the family who was tortured by the Gestapo during the war, was also staying there that night. He’s so memorable and stylish, and so involved in the investigation, I imagined that he might have been the detective in an earlier draft of the story. Nigel Havers would have been a good bet to play him on the TV, at any stage of his career; Hugh Grant actually did play him in a radio adaptation.

Beautifully, there’s even a vicar, Mr Hincks. With this addition, you feel as if you’re reading a novelised version of Cluedo. These beats are so familiar that they’re cosy. This is a book to curl up with in your dressing gown as you sup a nice hot cocoa, despite its central subject of foul murder.

However, PD James writes in deadly earnest; this is no pastiche or parody. For the first few chapters she outlines the family and other satellite suspects, establishing motive and opportunity for the crime. The story really catches light when Adam Dalgliesh appears on the scene. He’s tall, dark and handsome, but also douce and somewhat humourless. What the inspector might lose in charisma he makes up for in method. Dalgliesh always has control.

There are sly moments – particularly the part where some of the characters make inquiries of their own, taking on the role of investigator as they try to clear up the various mysteries and sub-plots connected with the crime. Whose ladder was left outside the dead girl’s window? Who was the mysterious man seen hanging around the house during the village fete earlier that day? Why did Steven Maxie propose to a girl he hardly knew? And does the unknown father of Sally’s baby have anything to do with her death?

There’s also something I’ve noticed in many detective novels – a part where one or more of the characters dismiss some theory or other as being unrealistic, as if it was part of a whodunnit. “This isn’t some silly crime novel,” they say – resisting the urge to turn and wink at the camera, no doubt.

At the top I asked what the English could do better than most. Ironically, Dalgliesh has a very similar name to a Scottish footballer who was arguably the most famous of them all in the 1970s and 80s: Kenny Dalglish. Just as with the spaceman Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dundee United’s tough-tackling midfielder of the 1980s and 90s, it’s hard to resist drawing parallels between the two similarly-named heroes. So I won’t.

Like his near-namesake, who was famous in the shirts of Celtic and Liverpool, Dalgliesh shields the play well, before spinning and dispatching his finish with lethal accuracy. But unlike Kenny Dalglish, the inspector is a bit of a tart – calling all the suspects into the manor house’s drawing room, at eight o’clock sharp, perfectly punctual and precise, in order to outline exactly who killed Sally Jupp, and how.

The full cast list of suspects awaits judgement on plush cushions, with Dalgliesh orchestrating great tension, shifting suspicion several times before providing the answer. It’s so cute, like how a kid would stage the final act of a murder mystery. This is precisely how I’d have executed the denouement when I was 11.

Dalgliesh calmly throws back all red herrings, exposing and discounting motives and alternative theories. By the time he finally identifies the killer, we are made to understand that they are the only person who could have done it. Logically, there was no other conclusion. If you’ve paid close attention and filtered out the extraneous noise, you’ll know this. I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the killer, but I’ve come to understand that to dedicate serious thinking time to a mystery story is to spoil it a little, even to risk disappointment, like peeking at your Christmas presents.

Cover Her Face is as much of a machine as it is a story – a perfectly planned and constructed engine, making for a very smooth ride indeed. In a sporty little MG, I imagine, brand new, racing green, buffed to a glassy sheen. For a debut novel, PD James’s command of her craft is enviable.   

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