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