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Book Review – ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James


Book Description:

St Cedd’s Church fete had been held in the grounds of Martingale Manor House for generations. As if organizing stalls, as well as presiding over luncheon, the bishop and the tea tent, were not enough for Mrs Maxie on that mellow July afternoon, she also had to contend with the news of her son’s sudden engagement to her new parlour maid, the sly single mother, Sally Jupp.

On the following morning Martingale and the whole village are shocked by the discovery of Sally Jupp’s body. Investigating the violent death at the manor house, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is embroiled in the complicated passions beneath the calm surface of English village life.

Cover Her Face‘ was P.D. James’ first foray into the crowded crime novel market; it also marked the introduction of her now famous Adam Dalgliesh to the public. I was surprised to learn that this one came out back in the dark ages of 1962! I’m glad that P.D. James is still going strong, what with ‘The Private Patient‘ being published as recently as 2008.

The book is divided into two acts, much like a play. In Part One, P.D. James sets a glacial pace as we slowly go through the events that lead to the locked-room murder of the parlour maid (turned soon-to-be lady of the house) Sally Japp. We meet the suspects : Mrs. Eleanor Maxie (matriarch of Martingale), her son & Martingale heir Dr. Stephen (yup, the one who actually proposes marriage to the maid), her daughter Deborah (SPOILER : if you’ve read the Adam Dalgiesh books, then you know that she’s Dalgiesh’s future girlfriend, so I was mighty curious to meet her), Catherine Bowers (nurse and ex-girlfriend of Stephen), Felix Hearne (WW2 hero and lover of Deborah) and Martha Bultitaft (the long-time maid at Martingale). And in their midst, the soon-to-be victim (beautiful, smart, ambitious, manipulative, secretive) Sally Japp who everyone kind of hates. Part Two is when we get to meet the Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh who goes about methodically interviewing everyone and finally gathers everyone in the study for the final denouement.

Oh, yeah, that cliched ‘locked room murder’ and ‘gather all the suspects in the study to reveal the murderer’ bits? Yup, P.D. James really went there in her debut novel. Although, to be fair, maybe that wasn’t so cliched back in 1962? I’ve only read P.D. James’ more recent books featuring Dalgiesh where he’s already the Commander, and I have to say, there’s a huge difference in the quality of writing when comparing this first effort and say, the truly excellent ‘Shroud for a Nightingale‘. Which is good, right? What I’ve noticed is that many authors release these fantastic debut novels and then they never quite live up to the magical quality of the first one… At least, P.D. James got better and better through the years.

In short, not too impressed with this one. I thought the pacing was plodding, the characters stereotypical and there’s too little Adam Dalgiesh. Plus, I guessed pretty early on who the murderer was, mostly because P.D. James was practically telegraphing it! I wouldn’t recommend this book when trying to convince someone that P.D. James ranks right up there with all the other English crime novelist greats. But if you’re a longtime fan of P.D. James, this is a chance to meet the younger Dalgiesh and see him at work before he gets into his stride in the later novels of the series. A book really for the completist fan.

There’s no Kindle edition for ‘Cover Her Face’, but you can order used copies on Amazon. Book Depository also sells copies (if you live internationally, check them out since they deliver world wide with no shipping fees). Better yet, just check if your local library still carries a copy.

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