The Black Tower (P D James)

blacktowerP.D. James was the Queen of the police procedural murder – mystery genre. She is a better writer than Agatha Christie because her characters are more well developed, as James explores their psyches and past. This novel was first published in 1975. The Tower itself is a nice symbol of evil and the setting would have made the great Thomas Hardy proud: in other words it is spooky and desolate.

Even though there’s a thirteen-year gap between the first novel and this one, it has more in common with the beginning of the series than with the later efforts. Dalgliesh has been in hospital with what he thought was terminal leukemia and had psychologically begun the progress of letting go of the world. But then (surprise!) it turned out to be a wrong diagnosis — “Only mononucleosis, you know.”

He’s almost annoyed to be told he’ll recover. But he has decided to give up his police career anyway. (Throughout this story, Adam seems slightly unbalanced actually.) But first there’s the letter he received from the elderly Father Baddeley, whom he had known as a boy and who has now asked him to come and give his advice on a problem at Toynton Grange, down on the Dorset coast.

The Grange is a country house converted by its owner, Wilfrid Anstey, into a hospice for young, chronically and degeneratively ill patients, in honor of his miraculous cure at Lourdes. So Adam finally makes his way there, figuring he’ll convalesce for a bit while visiting his old friend, only to find that the priest has died, apparently of natural causes, and has already been cremated and buried. Something’s not right though. And at least one of the patients has also recently died under what seem to be questionable circumstances.

And then there’s the set-up. The cast of characters, of course, is limited: a half-dozen patients, all in wheelchairs. Anstey and another half-dozen staff (all of them losers in one way or another, which means they work cheap), plus a couple of odd people renting cottages on the estate. James leads Adam (and the reader) from one player to another, almost by the hand, but it’s frankly hard to maintain interest.

Adam doesn’t want to get to know any of these people, and he resents having to stick around to look into the problem of the priest’s death, and only wants to get on with things. None of the patients is much more than pathetic. None of the staff is sympathetic at all. And the smug, rather self-righteous Wilfrid (he goes around in a brown monk’s cowl, for heaven’s sake) is the biggest loser of the bunch. The result is a not terribly interesting. The plot and pace drags on and on — although, in the last chapter, the bodies really begin to pile up.

It took some resolution to finish the book, frankly. I’m happy to say that James has improved a very great deal since these early days. Perhaps Ms. James was influenced by Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands” (wherein a convalescing detective has a fairly poetic and metaphysical experience near the sea), but The Black Tower captures none of the tone or sense of “suspended reality” of Josephine Tey’s far superior book.

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