The Murder Room by P D James

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The Murder Room by P D James

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The book's far from being one of her best novels but the plot is reasonably well done and the ending is satisfyingly surprising. The characters seem confused as to which era they're living in. It's one to borrow from the library rather than buy.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: September 2004
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0141015535

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Although I'm a great fan of the police-procedural type of crime novel I don't normally buy them in hardback. No matter how well written they are, once you know who killed the vicar, well, you know who killed the vicar. However, I had a birthday about a month after "The Murder Room" was published in July 2003 and the hardback edition was a thoughtful present.

The Dupayne is a private museum devoted to the period between the two world wars. It's based in an elegant setting on the edge of Hampstead Heath but the lease on the building is due to expire in a couple of weeks. For the lease to be renewed all of the museum's Trustees must agree to sign, but only two out of the three are willing to do so. Unless the dissenter can be persuaded to change his mind the museum will have to close and the exhibits will be sold. Before this can happen though, he is found horribly murdered and Commander Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate.

It's a good story and I got through the 371 pages in a couple of sittings. By page 150 I was convinced that I knew the identity of the murderer and the reason for the crime. I finished the book secure in the knowledge that I was not going to be surprised at the end, but I was wrong. P D James has a liking for setting her novels in closed institutions so that the murderer has to be one of half a dozen or so people. When I finished the book I realised that a reasonably convincing case could have been made for just about anyone to have been the murderer, but the eventual unmasking was reasonably satisfying.

What I found less satisfying was the romantic element. Our hero, Adam Dalgliesh, poet and policeman, lost his wife and son in childbirth many, many years ago. Since then there have been brief entanglements, but no emotional involvements. This time though, it's serious. Well, we're told it's serious, but frankly I found it difficult to be overly bothered about the outcome. Although the calendar suggests that we're in 2001 and people obviously have mobile phones our hero writes a letter of explanation when he has to cancel a date at short notice, rather than ringing. He nervously awaits the reply. Frankly he comes across as a bit of a limp lettuce romantically and Emma Lavenham is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. I wasn't certain why the romantic element was included as it neither helped nor impeded the investigation, although I did perhaps hear the whisper of an editor suggesting that there needed to be a nod towards a chick-lit element and an encouragement for people to buy the next novel in the series.

I did wonder, though, if there would be a next novel. P D James is 82 now and this is her sixteenth novel. Not all of them have featured Adam Dalgliesh, but he has appeared in the majority. I found the early books in the series such as "Cover her Face" and "Shroud for a Nightingale" to be eminently readable. For me her best novel was perhaps "Devices and Desires", which was complex and intriguing. The plot in "The Murder Room" is far less involved and there were occasions when I felt that the narrative was being padded out - for instance when a painting of no significance to the plot is described in minute detail. The author has an obvious love of elegant buildings and the finer points of art, but I felt she was self-indulgent. There was a time when I would have compared the concise writing of Ruth Rendell in her Wexford novels to that of P D James, but not any longer.

I was amused by the fact that the fictional museum is devoted to the period between the two wars as this does seem to be the period to which the author relates best. I did wonder if she'd also mentally set the murder in the same period, as it's difficult to imagine that some of the names of the characters would be common now. There's not only a housekeeper called Tallulah, but a motor mechanic called Stanley and one character has a wife called Nellie.

The book is not always easy reading. Baroness James has a taste for the longer sentence. They are perfectly constructed, but the meaning is not always evident on a first reading. I found myself rereading some parts to be sure that I had the meaning correctly and this does not make for relaxing reading. This is carried over into the dialogue. Everyone speaks grammatically and even the n'er-do-wells sound as though they're auditioning to be BBC newsreaders. Police personnel always speak politely to each other and there's little, if anything in the way of banter. I came to "The Murder Room" fresh from reading one of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels with all its gritty realism and the contrast could not have been starker.

There was a time when a new Dalgliesh novel was almost inevitably televised, but I doubt whether this story is realistic enough or the characters sufficiently three-dimensional to stand the exposure. In fact it did pass through my mind that it could be a good time for Commander Dalgliesh to retire from the police force and spend more time on his poetry.

I've given the book three stars and a cautious recommendation, although you might like to wait until the book appears on library shelves. It's not one you're likely to read again.

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lechateau1962 said:

I found this book terribly tedious and struggled to finish it.