Love her or hate her, British crime fiction author (and critic) P. D. James, who passed away last month, was one of the strongest defenders of the modern British crime novel. Over the course of a writing career that spanned 50 years, she wrote only about 20 novels, eleven of them featuring police detective Adam Dalgliesh. While she certainly had ties to the traditional mystery, she was more interested in creating realistic characters involved in crimes which generally grew out of their personalities rather than being imposed as puzzles.
Perhaps her closest approach to the traditional mystery may be found in her first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, originally published in 1962. It's the story of the murder of a young woman, a maid in one of those traditional English country houses. Cover Her Face is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.
Sally Jupp loved to keep secrets - making it very clear to everyone, however, that she was in possession of those secrets. She had an illegitimate child, for example, but wouldn't identify the father. She irritated almost every member of the household where she worked, and she even announced that the family's son had proposed to her.
Well, as one of the characters says, “She liked amusing herself with people…They can be dangerous playthings.” Apparently someone, pushed beyond endurance, kills Sally - in a locked room, no less. And so Adam Dalgliesh - a mere Detective Chief Inspector in this book, he would later be promoted to a Commander of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard - arrives at the estate to investigate the murder.
While James plays with the traditional English mystery ingredients - the country house setting, the locked room, the "upstairs downstairs" relationships between the family suspects and the servants - she is quite clearly more interested in giving us the memorable characters who populate this book. Although there are plenty of traditional clues to the identity of the killer, the solution to the mystery really comes from the interplay among the characters and the uncovering of their petty (and not so petty) secrets, often under the guidance of Dalgliesh. It was a pretty impressive debut performance for James. Over the years, her stories became longer and more complex - and, to me, less enjoyable, but I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Cover Her Face.