A Taste for Death (P.D. James)

By P.D. James

First published: UK, Faber, 1986

5 stars

James - Taste for Death.jpgAlthough very long (450 pages) and grim in parts, this is superb, possibly James’s best work.  The murders of a Minister of the Crown and a tramp in the vestry of a church afford James ample opportunity to write both a gripping detective story, with some good, logical detection on the part of Adam Dalgliesh resulting in the arrest of one of the most hateful murderers in fiction after an agonisingly tense scene in Miskin’s flat; and a finely-tuned novel filled with subtle characterisation and an intelligent treatment of the great Christian themes of guilt, faith, innocence and love.  This is what the modern detective novel should aim for.


In the dingy vestry of St. Matthew’s, Paddington, two bodies lie in a welter of blood, their gaping throats cut with brutal precision.  One is a local tramp, the other an ex-Minister of State.

Adam Dalgliesh finds himself faced with the most confused and convoluted case of his career.  Why was Sir Paul Berowne sleeping in the vestry shortly before his death?  What exactly happened when a girl was drowned at a Thamesbathing party?  What connects an elderly spinster whose life revolves round St. Matthew’s, the pathetic waif she befriends, Berowne’s embittered brother-in-law, and his estranged daughter Sarah, already deeply involved in revolutionary politics?  Was there any link between the deaths of three women already close to Berowne?

In reaching the answer Dalgliesh follows a trail from a Soane mansion in Kensington to the sourest stretches of a London canal, from the expense-account luxury of the Black Swan to a siege off Holland Park Avenue.  And finally, after some heart-stopping hours, to the great empty church were it all started.

A Taste for Death is P.D. James’s finest achievement yet.


Times Literary Supplement (James Campbell, 27th June 1986):


“What I like is innocence,” says the culprit, once cornered, in A Taste for Death—by which we understand, even if he himself doesn’t, that he likes to corrupt innocence.  It is a characteristic paradox.  In P.D. James’s novels, it is liable to be the hunger for a life free from responsibility—a kind of innocence, after all—which finally causes guilt; and it is the investigation of this guilt which demands a closer look inside the murky lives of associated “innocent” parties.  Murder is a great destroyer of privacy, muses Commander Adam Dalgliesh more than once in the course of his latest inquiry, during which he is bound to uncover quite a range of social vices, including the snobbish, the sexual and the lethal.

The action of A Taste for Death takes place, for the most part, around the Notting Hill area—in particular at a desirable fictional address in Campden Hill Square—but at the beginning we are introduced to a Minister of State in the vestry of a Paddington church.  His throat has been slit, and beside him lies a similarly mutilated tramp.  Sir Paul Berowne had undergone a recent religious conversion and may even have exhibited the stigmata; the priest had granted him permission to sleep in the vestry.  Harry Mack was a familiar local bum.  Their grotesque partnership, however (and James has a nice line in corpse description: “everything human had drained away from them with their blood…they no longer looked like men”), is a mystery.

Dalgliesh rounds up the usual suspects—that is, family, friends, lovers and (the least suspicious by far) enemies.  In this case they are Berowne’s wife, a beautiful, vain woman of a type James delights in exposing; her lover, a cold-blooded surgeon; Berowne’s mistress, plain, sincere and well-suited to tragedy; the immature brother-in-law, a jealous failure; the daughter and her subversive boyfriend; relatives of two women close to Berowne who died recently in suspicious circumstances; and all the dailies and cleaning women, chauffeurs and church helpers who typically make up the supporting cast.  More than one could have had a reason for doing it, all have solid alibis, and most have an air of not quite telling the truth.  Moreover, there is an unconvincing desire among the family to have it wrapped up as a case of murder followed by suicide.

Dalgliesh is too much a veteran to be thrown off the trail by such obstinacy.  To investigate the death of Sir Paul (not forgetting, as the family principals inevitably do, the tramp) he brings with him Massingham, who has a useful capacity to turn nasty with suspects, plus a new recruit to the squad, Inspector Kate Miskin—too pretty to be entirely resistible, too cold at the heart to fall in love with.

 A Taste for Death resembles Moby Dick in that if your only interest is in the story you may as well flick from the first chapter to the last and find out who killed whom.  The author’s main concern is with what happens in between, where the society of the novel’s inhabitants is dissected.  Indeed, if there is a faint dissatisfaction at the close, it is only because the one thing which does not fit squarely into this comedy of manners is the deed that is the excuse for the making of it.

Admirers of Dalgliesh will be pleased to learn that he is on stronger form than ever.  He has not written a poem for four years, but he can still quote Crabbe over a corpse, pick up references to Plato in a dead man’s letters, distinguish the good and bad in Lawrence and mutter a remark from Sartre.  Cold fish though he is, he understands the irony of Berowne’s death side by side with a tramp, which the family are incapable of doing.  He has an insight into the dead man’s spiritual crisis which Lady Berowne lacks (she, incidentally, gets her kicks by watching her surgeon lover “cut into another woman’s body”, taking her place in a line of Jamesian female perverts).

Is Dalgliesh a man, or merely a representative of Justice in its ideal form?  James avoids making him infallible by presenting him as an inadequate person, but his instincts as a detective are almost perfect.  Although he experiences pity and fear, these emotions are subsumed by his desire for the good.  His sympathy might be aroused by the plight of the defeated or the desperate, but it is his job to lock them up if they’ve done wrong.

The antics of Dalgliesh apart, the best thing in A Taste for Death is the partnership with which the book opens between dear, shy, old Miss Wharton, a church helper, and the mischievous, and in many ways unchildlike, ten-year-old Darren: “After the third visit he had, without an invitation, walked home with her and shared her tin of tomato soup and her fish fingers…he had become necessary to her.”  Other writers might have been tempted to build an entire novel around this recognisable pair; P.D. James can afford to spend them on a sub-plot.

She takes less trouble with those she dislikes.  Sir Paul’s mother, the dragonish Lady Ursula Berowne, is less a character than a mouthpiece for a set of unlikeable attributes of her class.  This, like the upstairs-downstairs atmosphere, is a fault of the genre, whose conventions James seems happy to obey, and of which she is one of the best living exponents.  In earlier novels, such as Cover Her Face (1962), these conventions threatened to squeeze out her other talents, but here she has made room for them all while still writing what is basically a detective story.  James often seems less interested in putting forward a convincing explanation of why one person should plot and carry out the killing off another than in dramatising all the fuss surrounding it.  Sometimes she is too fussy; in her long descriptions of interiors, the studied backgrounds to minor characters’ lives, where the background is adequately suggested by the character alone.  The alternative view is that the seemingly endless flow of minor characters and sub-plots—Inspector Miskin’s grumbling, dying grandmother, Berowne’s daughter’s involvement with a revolutionary movement, the affair between a member of the family and one of the staff—makes A Taste for Death an even more lavish entertainment than usual, and a more serious entertainment than most.


A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

Naturally, the reviewers and readers whose attitude toward the criminous is friendly but vague have called this work her best to date.  It is not.  All it has to offer is the competence of the practised hand without the necessary inventiveness.  There is much too much comment about everyone and everything—inventories of furniture and architectural detail and stock ideas about character.  The crime is bizarre and poorly accounted for.  One senses throughout the dangerous wish to “write a novel”, to be Trollope or Galsworthy and forget Miss Marple and Nero Wolfe.