Despite the fact that PD James considers her debut novel to somewhat weak in comparison to her later work, I have to say that she makes a damned good job of it. It would appear initially that James has stuck to a Christie-esque formula. We have the quintessential English village, the manor house, the angst-ridden middle class family, a doctor, a vicar and a respectable worthy spinster who runs an organisation providing help for unmarried mothers. There is also the traditional denouement where the detective gathers the suspects and the killer is exposed.
We are in 1962, however, and the world is changing, as are detective novels. The servants are no longer mere cyphers or witnesses brought briefly into the limelight to confirm that Lady Firmly-Wherewithall was in the library with the lead piping at the time of the murder and could not possibly have been in the dining room stabbing the vicar with her husband’s ceremonial Kukri.
These are servants with lives and personalities who can be both suspects and victims, and the world of the Maxie family is turned upside down when Sally Jupp, the young unmarried mother whom the Maxies have taken in as a maid, is found murdered in her locked room following her announcement that she is engaged to the Maxie’s only son, Stephen.
Inspector Adam Dalgleish is called in, and the investigation begins.
What is unusual about this novel is that – contrary to the structure of most detective novels – James takes us into the suspects’ thoughts, providing an odd perspective, but one which surprisingly does not reveal the killer.
The identity of the murderer is, in fact, far less important in this novel than in most murder mysteries. This is a novel of characters, manners and status in a changing England. The most enigmatic character of all is the victim, a girl whose complex life is revealed through the testimony of others, collated by the investigative skills of Inspector Dalgliesh.
Above all, it is exceedingly well-written. James’ command of prose is exceptional and she has managed to capture the essence of lives and attitudes in the early 1960s.