Monday, September 20, 2010

In The Spotlight: P.D. James' A Taste For Death

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Baroness P.D. James has been a powerful influence in crime fiction for decades, and her work has inspired many other crime fiction writers, myself included. Her sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, is a favourite of many crime fiction fans, too. So it seems only right to spotlight her writing on this feature. So today, let’s take a closer look at A Taste For Death.

A Taste For Death begins when Miss Emily Wharton and a young boy, Darren Wilkes, discover two bodies in St. Matthew’s Church. One of them is the body of a local tramp named Harry Mack. The other is the body of Sir Paul Berowne, a Minister of the Crown. Both men have had their throats cut. Since one of the bodies belongs to a prominent citizen, it’s considered a case for a new squad specially set up to handle controversial or delicate cases where a great deal of media attention is likely. So Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin are assigned to investigate. At first, the deaths look like a murder/suicide, although the evidence isn’t clear. But the case soon becomes more complicated when the evidence suggests that both men were murdered.

In the course of the investigation, Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin probe into the Berowne family and its background. We meet Lady Ursula Berowne, her daughter-in-law (and Paul Berowne’s widow) Barbara, and later, Paul Berowne’s daughter, Theresa. We also meet Barbara’s brother Dominic Swayne, the Berowne’s housekeeper/nurse Evelyn Matlock, and their driver and houseman Gordon Halliwell. Bit by bit, the investigators discover the dynamics within the Berowne family, as well as the other connections that Berowne had made. Dalgliesh and his team also discover the relationship between Berowne’s death and two other deaths: the drowning death of Diana Travers and the suicide of Theresa Noyes. In the end, after painstaking police work and one very fortunate piece of evidence, the squad discovers who killed Berowne and Mack, and how those murders are connected with the other two deaths.

There are several elements and themes in this novel. One of the most important is the theme of class differences. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, James discusses the differences among people that social standing can bring. For instance, there’s a great deal of interest in the death of Paul Berowne, who comes from a well-educated and wealthy family. There is almost no interest in the death of Harry Mack, a tramp who wasn’t from a “good” family to begin with. In fact, only the squad and Father Barnes from St. Matthew’s Church really have any interest at all in Harry’s death. We also see class differences within the Berowne household. For instance, Evelyen Matlock is what you might call the Berowne’s ward. She was taken in when her father was convicted of a crime and imprisoned, and now she acts as nurse to Lady Ursula and housekeeper. Throughout the novel, she’s given the nickname Mattie, although she didn’t choose it. And none of the family really considers her views, her opinions and so on. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Evelyn says:

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”

We also see class differences in the contrasts among Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin. Kate Miskin is a member of the working class, who’s had to work hard and fight her way, so to speak, to become an Inspector. Dalgliesh is “well-born,” and Massingham, too has an educated background. In several places in the novel, we see the differences that background has made in the way that the three detectives go about their jobs, and in their outlook on life. Miskin reflects more than once on the way that “well-born” people are often judged by a different standard and she feels resentment about it.

Another important element in this novel is the theme of family. Throughout the story, we see the family dynamics in the Berowne family, in Kate Miskin’s family and in John Massingham’s family. We also learn about Darren Wilkes’ family, too. One of the things we learn is that the traditional concept of “family” (father, mother, children) doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a family will be happy. Neither does money or high social status. In fact, in an interesting irony, the one unit that seems to be happy is the “family” that Darren Wilkes finds in Miss Emily Wharton. She’s got no blood relations of her own, really, so she takes a special interest in Darren and his welfare. The feeling is mutual, too, as Darren is very concerned for Miss Wharton when she deals with the shock and horror of finding Berowne and Mack’s bodies. Neither of these two characters is wealthy or “well-born,” but they do form a bond that’s much sounder in its way than the Berowne family bonds.

This novel is a police procedural, so the element of the slow, often-frustrating and painstaking police work involved in an investigation is also an important part of the story. The murders are not solved by some magical means, nor by the genius of one or another of the investigators. Rather, they work together to slowly find the clues. The detectives do figure out who the murderer is, but that’s by the slow process of looking at the evidence and sifting through alibis as much as by any other means. And even when they have figured out who the murderer is, Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin can’t make an arrest because they still need physical evidence to connect the murderer to the crimes. It’s not until they find that evidence that they are able to close the case.

Along with the police work involved in this novel is the element of teamwork we see. What’s interesting about that is that the three sleuths are quite different. They come from different backgrounds and have very different strengths and perspectives. In particular, Massingham and Miskin don’t much like each other. Massingham resents the fact that Miskin is a women. For her part, Miskin resents Massingham’s more privileged background. This is a very realistic portrayal of their relationship since in real life, just because police need to work together doesn’t mean they have to like each other. Those relationships are also an interesting source of tension in the novel.

It is actually the strong characters, though, that are the most important elements in this novel. Bit by bit, we learn about not just the members of the Berowne family, but also the sleuths. We see how their lives are similar and different, and we learn their backstories. In particular, we learn about Kate Miskin, who works with Dalgliesh for the first time in this novel. She’s a very strong character and she has solid police skills. Yet, she’s certainly not perfect, and throughout the novel, she learns from Dalgliesh and from Massingham. She’s resourceful and capable, but she’s also vulnerable, and that makes for an interesting contrast.

Because every character is carefully drawn and rounded out, we also see clearly how the characters interact, and how their personalities and backgrounds influence those relationships and interactions. We especially see Paul Berowne’s character unfold as we get to know him through the lens of his widow, his mother, his daughter, his mistress, and other people with whom he interacted. That includes, by the way, Dalgliesh, who had met Berowne a few times before the murder.

James uses an almost-poetic style to tell the story of these strong characters and their complex network of relationships. She also uses occasional flashbacks to “fill in the gaps” and add substance to the story. Those threads tie the story together. But what do you think? Have you read A Taste For Death? If you have, what elements do you see in the novel?

Coming Up on In The Spotlight

Monday 27 September/Tuesday 28 September – Strong Poison – Dorothy Sayers

Monday, 4 October/Tuesday 5 October – The Black Ice – Michael Connelly

Monday 11 October/Tuesday 12 October - The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie


  1. James is one of those crime writers who must be considered as 'literary.' I don't mean that as a put-down. She offers an in depth look at society while her detectives are about the business of solving the crime and the reader comes away with much more than might be expected. You can't go wrong with a James novel.

  2. John - You are absolutely right that James is a much a literary writer as she is a crime fiction author. She certainly does offer commentary on all sorts of issues and I agree; the reader has an experience that goes beyond just finding out whodunit.

  3. As tedious as police work is, I like that sort of thing in police novels. I don't like that someone says something and magically, the case is solved. PD James writes well and I've loved the mysteries I've read of hers.

    I have a question for you, I joined a Mary Higgins Clark reading challenge (I don't know why, it's not like I have a lot of time) and I was wondering if you have read any of her work? Were there any of the books she wrote that you liked?

    Also, I would love it if you would write a guest post for me. It can be one you've written before or whatever. I just love your posts and would love to feature you on my blog. If you have the time...let me know.


  4. I am a bit conflicted over P D James because I quite like the earlier books but I haven't bothered to read the last couple as I find the works have gotten longer without actually including anything additional despite all the extra words. I do remember the class issues highlighted in this particular book (as they often are with James) and as you say this was the first book to feature Kate Miskin who I liked and thought gave the sometimes annoyingly enigmatic Dalgliesh as good as he deserved.

    I haven't read any of your next three books scheduled (well I probably have read the Christie but don't remember it). You're just wanting me to buy more books aren't you?

  5. Clarissa - I agree; one of the good things about a police procedural is that we get to see how crimes are solved in a realistic way. It often takes hard work, a little good fortune and painstaking effort. And I think you're right; P.D. James does write very, very well :-).

    It's funny you should mention Mary Higgins Clark; I was actually thinking of putting one of her books (perhaps While My Pretty One Sleeps) in the spotlight one of these weeks. I've read some of her work and liked it. I'll be really interested to read your thoughts on her stuff.

    And I am so excited that you've invited me to guest post :-). Thank you :-). Just Email dates, etc., and we can go from there. Thank you :-).

  6. Bernadette - Yes, it is my mission to add to your TBR list; why should yours be any smaller than mine? ;-).

    It's funny you should mention the length of some of James' novels. I have to admit, that's an issue with me, too, although I must say, with A Taste For Death, the length didn't bother me. Things move along at a good pace, and James does, I think, a great job with character development. I really like the character of Kate Miskin, too. One thing I like about her is that she really does add to the investigation. She has her own skills and her own outlook, and both are helpful in the cases the team solves. And yes, she does give as good as she gets, which does Dalgliesh no harm at all...

  7. I have read only one PD James, and I loved it. Not been able to get my hands on any after that, which is the only reason I haven't read more. I love her work because she is so systematic (I know that is not the right word, but I mean that as a really high compliment).

    "While my Pretty One Sleeps" is my favourite Mary Higgens Clark too- not that I have read too many of them.

  8. Rayna - I think I know what you mean when you say systematic. James' work is organized, and flows. The characters are there for a reason and everything is related. If I am right and that's what you mean, then I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    OK, now that I know you like While My Pretty One Sleeps, I will have to put it in the spotlight :-). It's a terrific read, I think, so I'm glad Clarissa put it into my mind. Thanks, Clarissa.

  9. Thanks for your review Margot. This is one of the P.D. James's books I've read and I'm grateful you have just remind me of it. It was a long time ago and I'll probably re-read it again now.

  10. I loved that quote about Matti. That is one of the points I remember vividly from this story. There is a similar scene in the first Dalgliesh, Cover Her Face, isn´t there? A family member dies and "the faithful servant" suddely speaks her mind.

    Another aspect I loved about A Taste for Death was the way old Emily Wharton steals the picture much of the time. I think this is typical of P.D. James: we are surrounded by upper class people who think the world pivots around them, but the servants and old spinsters seem more real, more human and likeable.

    Well, the more of your posts I read, the more it becomes clear to me that I remember vivid characters, not whodunnit :D

  11. Jose Ignacio - My pleasure. This is actually one of those books that I think one wants to re-read. There's a lot to it, and I think reading it more than once lets one get some of the nuances that slip by the first time.

    Dorte - That scene when Mattie/Evelyn says what she's thinking is so strong, isn't it? And I think you're right that there is a similar scene in Cover Her Face. That one, too, really shows up the difference between upper-class types and the working class. I'd forgotten about that until you mentioned it :-). And, yes, Emily Wharton is such a wonderful character. She is so much more likeable than anyone in the Berowne family, and she's the only one that really seems to care about Darren.

    And vivid characters can be the best thing about a novel. So I'm not surprised you remember them as well as you do.

  12. Another fabulous post, Margot. Thanks for guiding us through this terrific work of P.D. James. I'm in awe of her talent. I haven't read this one, but maybe I'll check it out of the library next time I visit.

  13. I've been looking forward to this post. I've not read any of P.D. James' work and I was interested to get your take on it. Sounds like I've found another author to add to my 'wish list' of books. Thanks.

    BTW, a spotlight on Mary Higgins Clark by you would be great. I hope you add her to your list.

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. One of the best for sure. I've read almost all of her books and have never been let down.

  15. Kathleen - P.D. James is one of the great crime fiction writers, I think. She tells a multi-layered story with strong characters and a believable plot. Her descriptions, too, really paint a vivid picture of the context and setting. If you like her work, anyway, I think you'll like this one.

    Mason - Ah, another vote for Mary Higgins Clark. Done and done :-). And I think you'd like P.D. James' work very much. She uses what most people would call quite elegant language to tell her stories, and she really does create memorable characters.

    Patti - Isn't James a great author? I agree that she has written some excellent, excellent books, and this one is no exception.

  16. I always enjoy James' books when I read them. The characters are complex and so are the plots. Thanks for reminding me of "Taste for Death!" I'll have to pick it up again.

  17. Elizabeth - That's one thing I like about James' work, too. No superficiality there! She really shows us real-life complexity, doesn't she?

  18. Most enjoyable post, Margot, thank you!

    Like Bernadette, I very much enjoyed the earlier Dalgliesh books. The one in which Cordelia Grey is introduced (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) is very good, and there were hints in that of a romance between Grey and Dalgliesh. Then some time went by before the next novel, and she seemed to be dropped as a character (if my memory serves). Later on, Mishkin is introduced but then didn't the author kind of drop her too, or at least, the potential romance aspects?

    I have to admit that I have not read the last few novels because I began to find them very slow indeed, and also Dalgleish a simply unrealistic figure. I suppose in real time he is about 20 years past retirement age? The last one I read was set in a publishers' office and seemed very old-fashioned.

  19. Interesting blog - I just found it after I finished reading A Taste for Death yesterday. You might want to correct an error in your third paragraph - Paul Berowne's daughter is Sarah, not Theresa. I actually found her to be one of the most interesting characters.