The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Murders in the novels of P.D. James are invariably grisly. She takes an almost perverse delight in describing the murder or the victim in graphic detail. But the horror of this is balanced by the quality of her prose, her gift for evoking atmosphere, her insight into human character and descriptions of nature.

This novel is no exception. There are two murders in this novel, one an attempted murder and an accidental death. The murders are particularly horrible. The first victim is set on fire after a can of petrol has been thrown on him when he is in his car with his seat belt on. The second one is strangled and push into an old trunk. An old lady who has her head hit by a stone has a narrow escape and survives. In the accident, a motorcyclist dies after being thrown off his bike following an impact with a speeding car. James excels in these descriptions.

The setting of the story is highly imaginative and original. James constructs a museum on Hampstead Heath in London. It was created by a millionaire, Max Dupayne, as a museum dedicated to the Twenties and Thirties. In the museum is a room, nicknamed, The Murder Room, and dedicated to the most notorious cases of the period. The two murders replicate some of the features of two murders memorialized in the room.

James’s prose is at its best when she describes her detective’s first visit to the museum. Adam Dalgliesh is driving his Jaguar, “it took minutes before he could join the thinner stream of cars moving down Spaniards Road, which ran in a straight line across the Heath. Here the bushes and trees grew close to the tarmac, giving the illusion that they were in deep country...Dalgliesh drove down a tarmacked drive so narrow that two cars would have difficulty in passing. On each side was a narrow strip of turf with, beyond it, a thick hedge of rhododendron bushes. Behind them spindly trees, their leaves just fading to yellow, added to the dimness of the road...There was a bend to the left and then the lane straightened out and the museum was suddenly before them. Dalgliesh stopped the car and gazed in silence. The path divided to curve round a circular lawn with a central bed of shrubs, and beyond it stood a symmetrical red brick house, elegant, architecturally impressive and larger than he had expected.’’

The museum is family-run, with the two Dupayne brothers, Marcus and Neville, and their sister, Caroline, as the trustees. The lease of the house is coming up for renewal and on the renewal hangs the future of the museum. The trustees are divided on the issue. Marcus and Caroline want the museum to continue and to grow. Neville does not want this and is thus reluctant to sign the lease agreement. Neville is the first to be murdered and apart from his siblings, there are others — the museum staff, for example — who have motives for murder since his stand on the lease would lead to the closure of the museum.

But behind the murder mystery lies a tender love story whose denouement occurs in the most unexpected of places. That too is part of the suspense of this book.

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