A Taste for Mystery

A Taste for Death

By P.D. James

Knopf; 459 pages; $18.95.

ACCORDING TO a recent Time article, the '80s may well go down in literary history as the decade of the mystery novel. P.D. James, the reigning queen of fictional murder and intrigue, has recently published A Taste for Death, an impeccably British sleuth story that will help that prediction come true.

A Taste for Death marks the long awaited return of Commander Adam Dagliesh, a sensitive yet super-sly inspector, who hasn't graced James' novels in the last nine years. Now back in action, Dagliesh's current task is to investigate what appears to be the double suicide of politically prominent Sir Paul Berowne and town tramp Harry Mack, found together in a church vestry with their throats cut.

But as Dagliesh guesses, and as any astute mystery fan knows, appearances can be dangerously deceiving. Why would two men of such disparate social classes as Berowne and Mack join together in a suicide pact? Why had someone just weeks earlier sent Berowne a poison pen letter intimating his involvement in the deaths of his first wife, his mother's nurse and the family housekeeper?

Why had Berowne actively engaged Dagliesh's help in locating the source of the letter and then resigned from public life--and later, apparently, from life in general? And, above all, why does every member of the Berowne family have an almost-too-airtight alibi on the night of the apparent suicide?

Clearly something is foul in the city of London, and Dagliesh is determined to find out what it is.

Through the course of his investigation we encounter an intriguing array of suspects, including a lovelorn mistress, a frail mother with a ferocious grip on the family, a wife with an overly loving relationship with her cousin, a bitterly estranged daughter with a lover in the Communist Party, and a brother-in-law with several lovers among the Berowne's servant staff--one of whom is both a decoy member of the Communist Party and an undercover policewoman.

THIS COMPLEX LIST of suspects may suggest the makings of a contrived prime-time melodrama, but it should be noted that P.D. James is a true mystery artiste, whose writing transcends the seeming transparency of her material. Her prose is direct, with an unmistakably British flavor. It is of little wonder that her novels have translated so easily into high quality PBS television specials.

James has constructed a slick and engaging plot for A Taste for Death. But what makes her work more than just well-polished fiction is her consistently vivid characterizations and keen insights into daily human experience. Aside from a solid mystery, A Taste for Death is an effective psychological exploration of post-war British culture. James investigates the social mores of a defunct nobility and the predicaments of the working class, as well as the poltical attitudes of radical Labour extremists.

Yet despite the richness of James' brand of fiction, the book never seems overburdened or contrived. Her smooth unravelling of the mystery's details works hand-in-hand with her psychological portraits to create a work that is at once sheer entertainment and complex social inquiry. A Taste for Death may not go down in literary history as a great British novel, but it is a great British mystery.

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