A classic closed room whodunit, The Skull Beneath the Skin is the second of only two Cordelia Gray private detective mysteries by PD James. I wonder why she didn’t write more?
Gray’s fledgling detective agency is relying on finding missing cats when Sir George Ralston arrives unannounced to request Gray ensure the safety of his actress wife, Clarissa Lisle, at her next performance. Lisle has been receiving threatening letters and worries about freezing on stage. Sir George seems unconvinced of Clarissa’s danger. ‘The job I’m offering is a mixture of functions. You’d be part bodyguard, part private secretary, part investigator and part – well, nursemaid.’ Which sounds unpromising but the job pays well. So Cordelia leaves for Courcy Island, location of an amateur private performance of The Duchess of Malfi in which Lisle will play the starring role. As with all James’ novels, there is a delicious laying of pragmatic fact about those in attendance mixed with literary references and poetry.
Of course, Clarissa Lisle is murdered. The police arrive and Cordelia finds herself one of the suspects. There is the usual ragbag of potential murderers. The cuckolded husband; the dying former lover; the pampered stepson; the unsuccessful sister; the silent and sullen dresser; the efficient butler and his wife; the boatman and handyman; and the host of the event, arts patron and novelist Ambrose Gorringe. The setting is beautiful with hidden horror. Courcy Island, set off the Dorset coast, was the scene of nastiness and death during World War Two. Gorringe takes great delight in showing his newly-arrived guests around the island and displaying its dark past.
James writes such dense yet enlightening paragraphs that kindle curiosity. For example, at the end of chapter four, ‘He was discovering that even hatred died a little at the end. But it still lasted longer than desire, longer even than love. Walking slowly in the sunshine and thinking of the weekend ahead, he smiled at the realization that what was most alive in him now was the capacity for mischief.’ James, as always early in her novels, sets the scene with much hinting, veiling of the truth and making her own mischief.
Read my review of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the first of two Cordelia Gray novels.
‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ by PD James, Cordelia Gray #2 [UK: Faber]
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