The Black Tower (P.D. James)

  • By P.D. James
  • First published: UK: Faber & Faber, 1975; US: Scribner, 1975

It was nearly midnight. The night was starless and very still. She lay in blackness so thick that it was almost a weight on her chest, a dense curtain descending to stifle her. … Her bedside clock snatched at the seconds and ticked them into oblivion. She lay rigid, the warm tears flowing in a constant stream over her face to seep, suddenly cold and sticky, into her pillow…

Only now … could she give way to desolation and loss and indulge in what she knew was self-pity. And the tears, when once they started, would not stop. The grief once indulged was unassuageable. She had no control over her crying. It no longer distressed her; it had nothing to do with grief or longing. It was a physical manifestation, involuntary as a hiccup, but silent and almost consoling; an interminable stream.

Chapter VI

The black tower is a Gothic folly that stands on the Dorset coast. Its Victorian builder, inventor of his own religion, walled himself up to await the Last Judgement. Instead, he starved to death. When the wind blows and the brambles rustle against the tower walls, one can hear his bony claws scrabbling to get out…

But The Black Tower is less Goth than emo. This may be one of the most depressing detective stories ever written. It is also one of James’s most esteemed novels. (True art is angsty.)

The setting is Toynton Grange, a private home for the disabled. A convalescent Adam Dalgliesh, fastidious and self-disgusted, wanders slowly among the diseased, the dying, and the unhappy able-bodied, wondering whether to give up his job, while the residents expire around him. The accidents, heart attacks, and suicides may be murder, but Dalgliesh is reluctant to become involved. He is recovering from a long illness; having resigned himself to die and been spared, he now intends to resign from the police. He is weary of murder and investigations. The focus is as much on Dalgliesh’s journey back to life as it is on the murder problem. It ends on a muted note of optimism, bringing Dalgliesh back full circle to the hospital bed where the book began. “He was going to get better… It was nice of them … to look so pleased that he wasn’t going to die after all.”

Contemporary critics admired its emotional complexity (i.e. misery) and its realistic treatment of suffering, disability, and death. The Sunday Times hailed it as “a consummately good crime novel, a masterpiece”; former Angry Young Man John Braine called it “a real novel which can be enjoyed without any reservation”; and the CWA awarded it the Silver Dagger in 1975. A dozen years later, H.R.F. Keating included it in his 100 Best Crime and Mystery Books. More recently, Curt Evans praised it as an “elegantly written, emotionally moving and powerfully atmospheric” detective story – but acknowledged that it is uncomfortable reading.

I respect the book, but I don’t particularly like it. As always, James draws places and characters well, even if those here are dismal. She sympathetically depicts the patients: an ordinary girl whose husband has left her, and who now seeks consolation in fantasy; a retired civil servant in love with a dying boy; and an intelligent Trollope-reading spinster who would like to be friends with Dalgliesh. But one may also feel that although many of the characters die, few truly come to life. The TV miniseries had the advantage of Roy Marsden as an aloof yet affable Dalgliesh, Maurice Denham as a wise, kindly Father Baddeley (dead before the book begins), and Martin Jarvis as a well-intentioned yet naive and dangerously idealistic Wilfred Anstey, while Pauline Collins made Maggie Hewson earthy, scheming, and frustrated, but also warm-hearted – the one really vivid character in the place. (James, however, does not like sexy, sensuous women.)

At times, James writes beautifully – particularly reflections on death and lyrical descriptions of dead bodies. “He looked out of the tall, curved window westward over the rising headland. The darkness was falling. Somewhere out there the restless tide was scouring the rocks, rocks washed clean for ever of Holroyd’s blood. Not even a twist of torn cloth remained for the barnacles to fasten on. Holroyd’s dead hands like floating weeds moving sluggishly in the tide, sand-filled eyes turned upwards to the swooping gulls.” (Ch. III)

But the book is queasily physical. James dwells on the diseased body, on gleaming globules of mucus, dandruff, veins in thin wrists, palsied hands, and uncontrollably jerking limbs. Here is a description of dinner: “All the patients were being helped to eat. Dalgliesh, despising his squeamishness, tried to shut his ears to the muted slobbering, the staccato rattle of spoon against plate, the sudden retching, unobtrusively controlled.” (Ch. III). Enough to put you off your food.

The able-bodied are revolting, too. Mrs. Hammitt’s “legs [are] planted firmly apart to reveal twin balloons of milky white and varicosed thigh above the bite of the stockings” (Ch. IV). “Helen Rainer bent her face close to Ursula’s, unpleasantly close. In the glare of the bedside lamp she could see the features magnified, coarsened, pores like miniature craters, two unplucked hairs standing like bristles at the corners of her mouth. Her breath smelt slightly sour.” (Ch. VI). James, one assumes, didn’t much like physicality.

The contemplative, meditative (or slow) pace; the sustained unhappiness; the repellent bodies; and the air of decay and disinfectant pall. Although an orthodox detective story with an unusual setting, The Black Tower is perhaps too sombre to truly enjoy. This is, I suspect, one for dedicated Jamesians only; those after James at her best should try the early novels (A Mind to Murder, Shroud for a Nightingale) or the later, magnificent A Taste for Death.

(And this is my 200th post!)

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (11th July 1975): Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is invited to visit and advise an old family friend in Dorset.  Dalgliesh’s own illness prevents a prompt reply and, when he does arrive, he finds his host peacefully dead and cremated; he becomes involved in the nearby home for incurable paralytics and, as natural deaths and suicides pile up, only he and the reader suspect foul play.  The villain is discovered after the remaining inmates have departed on their annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, and there is a splendid climax.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Adam Dalgleish, convalescing after a severe illness, arrives at Toynton Grange (Dorset coast), the rest home for the young disabled, just too late to find out why his old friend Father Baddeley had sent for him.  The monk-robed Wilfred Anstey and his staff are an odd lot, as are the few patients, all in wheelchairs.  There’s already been a suspicious suicide, and Dalgleish is not at all satisfied that the old priest’s death was caused by myocarditis alone.  Handicapped by poor health, he finally manages to unearth the secret of the grange.  Unpleasant people, but good final scenes.

7 thoughts on “The Black Tower (P.D. James)

  1. Appreciate the recommendations of James’ better work at the end. I read this when v young (15 or 16) when looking for a replacement for Dame Agatha as I’d read most of those and had heard of James. Put me off her for life – not convinced I even finished it. I might find time to take a look at one of the better ones…


    1. Yes, I noticed your comment on Facebook:
      “I’m with you too. Read a couple a long time ago and never had any desire to return, even as more mature reader. You’re not alone!”

      Whereas I read The Black Tower when I was 13. I remember liking it – lots of good murders. The callousness of youth!

      But I wouldn’t give up on James. I think you might enjoy Cover Her Face (country house), A Mind to Murder, Unnatural Causes (quite Sayersian / Blakean), Shroud for a Nightingale, and Death of an Expert Witness. They’re excellent detective stories in the classical vein, only with grittier characterisation.


  2. Ah, so THIS is the novel alluded to that contains globules of mucus, palsied hands, etc. I have read so little P.D. James that I would not have made the connection. A really observant review from you, as usual, Nick.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nice! Thanks for the recommendation. I have many of her books on unabridged audio, but may want to read her on the page as her prose feels rather dense. I will put her in rotation.


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