Saturday, March 17, 2007

Murder Mystery Extravaganza

The following were all decent books, nothing either spectacularly good or bad. I figured it was easiest to review them all together.

Title: Lord Edgware Dies
Author: Agatha Christie

Beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson wants her husband, the creepy and cold Lord Edgware, dead. Everyone knows this, for she laughingly proclaims it aloud it public. But since murder yet remains a criminal offense in England, she calls in detective Hercule Poirot to act as her agent in order to procuring the next best thing – a divorce. Lord Edgware, she asserts, has stubbornly refused to grant her one. Monsieur Poirot pays a visit to the husband and is mildly surprised when he readily agrees to set his dear wife free.

But the following morning, Lord Edgware’s found dead, stabbed with apparent expertise in the head.

Anyway, Poirot sets out to prove Lady Edgware’s innocence in what seems to be to be a typical Christie mystery. Red herrings abound, Poirot gently mocks the intelligence of his friend Hastings while crowing over his own, and numerous characters traipse about who had a motive to do the old man in. Unfortunately, the character I initially found most intriguing, expert mimic Carlotta Adams, bites the dust within the first fifty pages. Maybe that’s part of the reason I never really read Dame Agatha all that much – she kills off everyone I like.

Title: The Skull Beneath the Skin
Author: P.D. James

The Skull Beneath the Skin is P.D. James' second and only other novel after An Unsuitable Job for a Woman starring female detective Cordelia Gray, which I liked immensely and already reviewed. Similar to Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, it also revolves around a blithely selfish and amoral blonde actress. Except in James’ book, the actress becomes the corpse.

Actress Clarissa Lisle’s husband hires Cordelia to act as something as a personal assistant/bodyguard/private detective for his wife during a weekend island sojourn. Clarissa will be starring in the notoriously bloody “The Duchess of Malfi” over the weekend, and she’s rather paranoid about the thing since she’s been receiving death threats. Clarissa’s supposed to look after her and lend comfort and support. But immediately before the performance, Clarissa’s found in her bed with her face bashed in – dead, of course. And Cordelia has another crime to solve.

I didn’t like this nearly as much as An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, although it does have its moments. And I do enjoy how James wields an incredibly diverse vocabulary. Words lie threnody, plangent, and postprandial abound, and I often found myself reaching for my dictionary. But the novel’s also rather derivative, revolving around a murder in a closed setting with the suspect pool limited to an interesting cast of characters who were the only ones present at the time. Blah blah blah. Been there, done that. It’s also far longer than it needed to be, and Cordelia, whom I do like immensely, sometimes fades into the background. I missed her in this book.

Still, it was enjoyable and entertaining, though not quite moving.

Title: Cover Her Face
Author: P.D. James

More Baroness James. This was her first novel, introducing the detective who was to become her most famous creation, Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d hoped it to be. I think I’ll be taking a hiatus from James after this.

Plot: Sally Jupp is a beautiful unwed mother given a job at Martingale Manor, inhabited by matriarch Mrs. Maxie; her daughter, the young widow Mrs. Deborah Risoe; and her son Simon, the doctor. When Sally’s found strangled in her room behind a locked door – the morning after she announces Simon has asked her the marry him – they’re all suspects. There’s also the local preacher, the warden of the orphanage, the housekeeper, a charming and rather Peter Wimsey-esque war veteran in love with Deborah, and one of Simon’s past affairs, a girl who firmly believes she will one day be mistress of Martingale manor.

Enter Adam Dalgliesh, who comes down into the country from London to solve the crime. But despite being the supposed main character, the reader spends very little time with Dalgliesh, and seldom gets a glimpse in his mind. James limits her readers’ perspective to what the suspects themselves see. Which isn’t that much of a problem, except it doesn’t make me all that eager to read the next Dalgliesh book.

I guess what troubled me most was a rather real streak of nastiness and snobbery running through the book. There seemed to be the implication throughout that the upstart Sally – whom everyone knew to be scheming and devious – got what she deserved in aspiring to a match far above her. Essentially, she brought her murder upon herself. That left a rather bad taste in my mouth.


posted by Elizabeth at 9:50 PM


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