Go to Homepage   P.D. James: The Murder Room


Crescent Blues Book ViewsKnopf (Hardcover), ISBN 1-4000-4141-4

The small Dupayne Museum, on the edge of a large area of parkland, Hampstead Heath, in North London, houses exhibitions devoted to life in Britain between the two World Wars. Although the museum draws relatively few visitors, it does boast one perennially popular attraction, the Murder Room, containing exhibits related to the most notorious murders of the period.

Book: pd james, the murder room
The will of old Max Dupayne, the museum's founder, decrees that his three children -- Neville, Caroline and Marcus -- must unanimously agree to any important decision related to the museum. And what could be more important than the renewal of its lease? This issue, in effect, will decide whether or not the museum should continue to exist. Neville, alone among the three, feels strongly it should not.

Then someone murders Neville gruesomely in the museum garage, in a manner reminiscent of one of the killings celebrated in the Murder Room. Commander Adam Dalgleish and his officers of Scotland Yard's Special Investigation Squad (SIS) are immediately called in.

The presence of a sleeper for MI5 on the museum staff greatly increases the sensitivity of the case -- hence the prompt involvement of the SIS as opposed to a more routine squad. But before SIS can complete their investigation, they discover a second murder victim in the Murder Room itself. Is it the work of the same murderer or a copycat?

A section called "The People and the Place" takes up the first 110 or so pages of the book. During this section almost nothing of relevance to the novel's plot takes place that could not be covered elsewhere in a few paragraphs. Instead, James treats us to vastly expanded versions of the character notes that many writers make preparatory to undertaking a novel, so that they may ensure consistency of background and of character. In the hands of a more deft and graceful writer than James, this long preamble might nonetheless prove absorbing. However, James displays a somewhat lumbering, drab prose style. As a result, for large tracts of this section one gets the feeling of being subjected to some sort of literary endurance test.

And then, a few pages before the section's end, the plot starts.

This transition, however, does not curb James's urge to dollop further frequent bucketsful of exposition into her text. It seems at times that virtually every stray thought of, particularly, Dalgleish and his sidekick Miskin, must be qualified by a ponderously long paragraph or three of explanation.

It took a long time for me to work out why James should be indulging in this sort of apparent padding, this almost obsessive level of amplification of each action or thought. But finally I realized that it was because she was having difficulty getting her characters to come alive on the page. All these extraneous passages were attempts to conceal this; they were substitutes for characterization. Almost the sole character in the book who really does live and breathe is the museum's housekeeper, Tally. The rest, Dalgleish included, function essentially as ciphers -- collections of often stereotyped attributes rather than real people.

By the end of the book, the cumbersomeness of James's prose begins to work in her favor, in that by then she builds a slow but unstoppable momentum. It's arguably worth persisting with The Murder Room until that happens, but I suspect many readers will abandon the novel before then.

John Grant

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