My mystery book group met again last Friday to discuss P.D. James’s first Dalgliesh novel Cover Her Face. The meetings are always good, but this time was extra special, as Emily made a surprise visit. And we had a fun novel to discuss. I’ve enjoyed James’s Dalgliesh series before, having read or listened to three other of the novels in the series, and I was glad to go back to the beginning.
As far as there ever is a consensus at these meetings, it was that Cover Her Face is a good first effort, well-written, if a little sketchy in the plotting. My feeling was that while I enjoyed it, it didn’t blow me away — as, truthfully, the other James novels didn’t either, but I don’t always need to be blown away. Sometimes it’s just fine to read a competent but not brilliant book.
I was a little surprised to find out how little the book says about her detective Dalgliesh. The later books aren’t terribly forthcoming either, but here there were maybe two or three facts about the character that James offers, the most important being that his wife and first child died a few years earlier. The other fact I remember is that he likes plain English food. Otherwise, all we know about him we have to infer from his words and actions. This does tell us some important things, though — chiefly, that he’s supremely competent, professional, and dispassionate. Interestingly, the book contains no hint of his future career as a poet. Here, he’s all about work and little else. We get hints that he knows something about art and culture, but they are only hints.
The group couldn’t decide whether James was most likely setting up a series here or whether the idea for the series came later, but all this makes me think the idea came later. Most first mysteries in a series do a lot more to set the character up, at least in my limited mystery reading.
As far as the plot goes, it’s standard mystery fare — it takes place on a family estate in a small town in the English countryside; there is a small group of suspects, each with a plausible motive; much of the book is taken up with transcripts of suspect interviews; and it closes with a drawning-room scene where everything is revealed. Not surprisingly for this sort of setting, class issues are a major factor in the plot. The victim is a housemaid, Sally, who had a child out of wedlock, and has become a kind of charity case; she works for the Maxie family who feel that they have taken a risk by hiring her, and the novel opens with everyone on edge, hoping it will work out. But when Sally appears in the same dress as the Maxie daughter, they know that something is wrong, and when she announces her engagement to the Maxie son, their lives are thrown into disorder. The mystery is as much about Sally herself as it is about who killed her — questions about her motivations and her strange behavior drive the plot as much as the murder does.
I’d like to read more Dalgliesh books, because they are enjoyable, but even more so because I’m curious how the series develops. I think it’s an interesting exercise to see how a writer develops over the course of multiple books with the same character, and James has been writing Dalgliesh books for decades (Cover Her Face came out in 1962), so she’d make an interesting study. And I’m interested in seeing how Dalgliesh develops as well. But I didn’t love this book so much that I’m going to rush out and find the rest of them right away. James is somebody to pick up when I’m in the mood for writing that’s predictably, reliably competent, somebody who may not surprise but who probably won’t disappoint either.