The Murder Room by P D James

P D James along with M C Beaton and Agatha Christie must surely be amongst the traditional royalty of crime writers. Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, known as P. D. James, was an English crime writer. She rose to fame for her series of detective novels starring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh. She was born in Oxford, England on 3, August 1920 and died there on 27, November 2014. She is  is thepdj author of twenty books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the US and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Department of the Home Office in the UK. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. P D James has also won several awards and prizes including the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame, Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America and the Diamond Dagger from British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Murder Room is the twelfth Adam Dalgleish novel by P D James. It was published in 2003 and is set in London, particularly in the Dupayne Museum, an architecturally interesting building to which homicide comes. It is a privately owned showcase for art and artefacts  on the edge of Hampstead Heath in the London Borough of Camden. James sets her stories in these stunning churches, monasteries and museums because they echo the settings of the classic British whodunnits, and her life’s mission has been to reclaim that genre for serious writing. The setting of The Murder Room also has a deeper significance: the Duprayne is displaying something of James herself. Her invented museum contains only exhibits from the years between the two world wars: 1919-1939. This is the period which TS Eliot described in Four Quartets as “twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres “.

In The Murder Room the curator of the museum section which gives the book its title, a display of props and weapons from notorious interwar killings, believes that murders take their inspiration and nature from the era in which they occur. James clearly intends this as a clue and it turns out that the murders which occur in the Murder murder roomRoom are motivated by sex. Specifically, those varieties of sex which the internet has made easier and which the Anglican Church still wishes to restrict. However, in the book, all the characters use the euphemism “bed” for sex. That is a bit dated. Also, all James’s characters talk in perfectly grammatical English, in sentences that never admit ellipsis or repetition. Even an “um” seems to be bad manners, and a surly young thug alludes to being on “jobseeker’s allowance”, rather than “on the brew” or “dole”. The result of this is that the dialogue suffers. Characteristically, character after character in The Murder Room laments the way people speak, the loss of faith in God, the decline of the BBC.

Younger readers and critics, raised on the demotic style of Scottish and American crime-writing, will find themselves wishing that the characters in The Murder Room would sweat and swear more. However, this book, about killings among the exhibits is not one of James’ best works, but it is certainly not a museum piece. To those of you who enjoy classic crime writing, I recommend this novel.

Valerie Penny



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