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A Taste For Death

P D James

When the quiet Little Vestry of St. Matthew's Church becomes the blood-soaked scene of a double murder, Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh faces an intriguing conundrum: How did an upper-crust Minister come to lie, slit throat to slit throat, next to a neighborhood derelict of the lowest order? Challenged with the investigation of a crime that appears to have endless motives, Dalgliesh explores the sinister web spun around a half-burnt diary and a violet-eyed widow who is pregnant and full of malice--all the while hoping to fill the gap of logic that joined these two disparate men in bright red death. . .

A Taste For Death begins when Miss Emily Wharton and a young boy, Darren Wilkes, discover two bodies in St. Matthew’s Church. One of them is the body of a local tramp named Harry Mack. The other is the body of Sir Paul Berowne, a Minister of the Crown. Both men have had their throats cut. Since one of the bodies belongs to a prominent citizen, it’s considered a case for a new squad specially set up to handle controversial or delicate cases where a great deal of media attention is likely. So Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin are assigned to investigate. At first, the deaths look like a murder/suicide, although the evidence isn’t clear. But the case soon becomes more complicated when the evidence suggests that both men were murdered.In the course of the investigation, Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin probe into the Berowne family and its background.

We meet Lady Ursula Berowne, her daughter-in-law (and Paul Berowne’s widow) Barbara, and later, Paul Berowne’s daughter, Theresa. We also meet Barbara’s brother Dominic Swayne, the Berowne’s housekeeper/nurse Evelyn Matlock, and their driver and houseman Gordon Halliwell. Bit by bit, the investigators discover the dynamics within the Berowne family, as well as the other connections that Berowne had made.

We  see class differences in the contrasts among Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin. Kate Miskin is a member of the working class, who’s had to work hard and fight her way, so to speak, to become an Inspector. Dalgliesh is “well-born,” and Massingham, too has an educated background. In several places in the novel, we see the differences that background has made in the way that the three detectives go about their jobs, and in their outlook on life. Miskin reflects more than once on the way that “well-born” people are often judged by a different standard and she feels resentment about it.

This novel is a police procedural, so the element of the slow, often-frustrating and painstaking police work involved in an investigation is also an important part of the story. The murders are not solved by some magical means, nor by the genius of one or another of the investigators. Rather, they work together to slowly find the clues. The detectives do figure out who the murderer is, but that’s by the slow process of looking at the evidence and sifting through alibis as much as by any other means. And even when they have figured out who the murderer is, Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin can’t make an arrest because they still need physical evidence to connect the murderer to the crimes.

Along with the police work involved in this novel is the element of teamwork we see. What’s interesting about that is that the three sleuths are quite different. They come from different backgrounds and have very different strengths and perspectives. In particular, Massingham and Miskin don’t much like each other. Massingham resents the fact that Miskin is a women. For her part, Miskin resents Massingham’s more privileged background. This is a very realistic portrayal of their relationship since in real life, just because police need to work together doesn’t mean they have to like each other. Those relationships are also an interesting source of tension in the novel.

It is actually the strong characters, though, that are the most important elements in this novel. Bit by bit, we learn about not just the members of the Berowne family, but also the sleuths. We see how their lives are similar and different, and we learn their backstories. In particular, we learn about Kate Miskin, who works with Dalgliesh for the first time in this novel. She’s a very strong character and she has solid police skills. Yet, she’s certainly not perfect, and throughout the novel, she learns from Dalgliesh and from Massingham. She’s resourceful and capable, but she’s also vulnerable, and that makes for an interesting contrast.

James uses an almost-poetic style to tell the story of these strong characters and their complex network of relationships. She also uses occasional flashbacks to “fill in the gaps” and add substance to the story. Those threads tie the story together.

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

About PD James

P D James is the author of twenty books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Department of Great Britain's Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 she 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.Awards: International Crime Writing Hall of Fame 2008; Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, 1999; Diamond Dagger from British Crime Writers' Association, 1987


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