LITERARY REVIEW

Getting on with the job

DETECTIVE FICTION

Getting on with the job

SOMEWHERE along in the book The Murder Room, Inspector Kate Miskin thinks it odd that the Squad should spend days and weeks deciding how and why and who had caused a single man to die and yet any moment terrorists could rain death on thousands.

So, when killings have been reduced to mere statistics, does murder still remain a unique crime? P.D. James must think it does or why else would she, at 80-plus, come out with another whodunnit in the traditional Agatha Christie style where murders repel and fascinate, and the world is still policed by noble souls of the likes of Commander Adam Dalgeliesh.

Not that James is not plagued with doubts. How can it be that the Special Investigation Team, headed by Dalgeliesh, remains untouched by the changing

crime scenario? Hence, words such as terrorism and terrorist threats make an appearance in the book. As if to explain what James' book is doing in such a world, Kate thinks what her colleague, Piers, might say — "Coping with terrorists isn't our job. This is."

The Murder Room is set in the fictional Dupayne Museum situated on the fringes of Hampstead Heath in present-day London. The museum, founded by Max Dupayne, is a small specialised repository dedicated to the years between the two World Wars. There is a "Murder Room" which showcases some of the infamous murders that took place in that period. There are photographs, records, even weapons and props that were used in these crimes. The Museum lease is due for renewal and it has to be done with the consent of all the three trustees, the Dupayne heirs, Marcus, Caroline and Neville. Without the lease, the museum will have to close. These three siblings have their own lives and interests, and much of the work of the museum has so far been in charge of its curator James Calder Hale. But, Marcus, just retired from civil service, now seeks to be actively involved with the museum. Caroline, who is a co-principal of Swathling College (a modern-age finishing school for rich girls), too is interested in its continuance. Neville, a psychiatrist by profession, abhors the museum and would only like to see it shut. His daughter's interest lies in the share of the money that would come from the sale of its possessions.

There is a small cast of employees all of whom have the motive, means and the opportunity to commit the crime that eventually takes place. When Dalgeliesh steps in (curiously he had been at the museum only days before the crime) to investigate into Neville Dupayne's grisly murder, the team soon finds itself confronted with not one but three murderous attacks — all reminiscent of the notorious murders showcased in the museum. Is there a copycat murderer on the prowl?

For followers of P.D. James, the plotting and style should be familiar. Indeed so familiar, it seems like a formula. As Dalgeliesh and his team probe into the present and past of the suspects, there are many surprising, even sordid, revelations. There is enough material and evidence for the reader to engage in his own detective work. James, a veteran in this department, plays this game with the reader with her usual skill; revealing yet not giving away.

Descriptive prose, a hallmark of James, is also there in plenty. In a crime novel, who else but she would use prose such as, "England had rejoiced in a beautiful October more typical of spring's tender vicissitudes than of the year's slow decline into the multicoloured decrepitude... " In a lesser author, such prose, if nothing else, can stretch the story to twice its length. But from James, who has given us such unhurried and detailed yet chilling descriptions of Ratcliffe Highway murders in her The Maul and the Pear Tree, this is quite acceptable.

With this book, Dalgeliesh's team is at the crossroads. Piers will soon be out to join the Special Branch. Kate's promotion to Chief Inspector is on the cards. Admirers of Dalgeliesh better be warned too. He is in love with Emma Levanham, the Oxford lecturer he met at St. Anselm's. Although the demands of his job keeps proving to be a hurdle between them, it is worth looking out for the next book if only to know if this charismatic poet-detective remains the same. After all, all this while, his single and unattached marital status has added to his charm in no small way.

The Murder Room, P.D.James, Faber & Faber, p.371.

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