Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James

>> Wednesday, January 29, 2003

After reading a very good book, I always try to start something completely different, otherwise what I read feels a little disappointing. This time, I started a mystery, Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James.

Asked by a wealthy businessman to investigate the "accidental" death of his adopted son Ronald, a student at a small theological college in East Anglia, Dalgliesh willingly returns to St. Anselm's, where he had spent happy summers as a teenager. But what was a casual investigation turns into official police business when the archdeacon, another weekend visitor, is found brutally murdered in the locked church.

Is his killing related to Ronald's death or to the recent fatal "heart attack" of the housekeeper who discovered Ronald's body? Or was the archdeacon murdered because he threatened to close the college down? In their usual methodical and careful manner, Dagliesh and his team, Detective Inspectors Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant, seek answers and a murderer.

To tell you the truth, I don't know why I like James's books so much. Actually, yes, I know, she's a genius at characterization, but the thing is, I always feel depressed when I finish her books. And yet I keep reading and enjoying them.

Posted later...

I really don't know what grade to give Death in Holy Orders. It's fascinating as a character study (though some things bothered me), but IMO, it fails as a whodunnit.

The best thing here is the painstaking care the author takes when drawing the characters. These are real people. I like some, dislike others, but they're always real and they act real, except for the one case which makes the whodunnit not work.

However, I'm not sure I like the characters the author would want me to like. Dalgliesh, our protagonist, for instance, came across to me as very judgemental, and I never liked him much. The scene where he interviews Eric and Karen Surtees is a perfect example of this. He's terribly hostile to them, especially Karen.

The worse thing is that this is the same character who doesn't turn a hair when hearing one of the priests there served time for sexually abusing minors. That bothered me, how everyone seemed to take the view that Father John was to be pitied and somehow hadn't deserved to suffer. And it wasn't just one character who seemed to feel that, there were enough that I'm pretty sure I know what James' position is, and I don't like this at all.

I also felt James was too heavy handed when characterizing all believers as good and all non-believers as bad. Every atheist or agnostic here is morally bankrupt, maybe except one of the other detectives. As an agnostic myself, this was a big turn-off.

The resolution of the murders was foolish. I never believed the murderer would have done what he did for the reasons stated. It didn't make any sense.

I'd give this an A- for the setting and atmosphere and the characterization and a C for the resolution of the murders. Final grade: B.

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