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The Murder Room by P.D. James


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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Adam Dalgliesh returns to solve more murders in P.D. James’ latest offering, The Murder Room. Weighing in at 432 pages, some readers will enjoy the slow pace of the plot development, while others may become infuriated after ample clues have been dropped. Here’s an excerpt from Part 1, Chapter 3, pp. 30-36:

In his office overlooking St. James’s Park, the eldest of the Dupaynes was clearing his desk. He did it as he had done everything in his official life, methodically, with thought and without hurry. There was little to dispose of, less to take away with him; almost all record of his official life had already been removed. An hour earlier the last file, containing his final minutes, had been collected by the uni­formed messenger as quietly and unceremoniously as if this final emptying of his out-tray had been no different from any other. His few personal books had been gradually removed from the bookcase which now held only official publications, the criminal statistics, White Papers, Archbold and copies of recent legislation. Other hands would be placing personal volumes on the empty shelves. He thought he knew whose. In his view it was an unmerited promotion, premature, not yet earned, but then his successor had earlier been marked out as one of the fortunate ones who, in the jargon of the Service, were the designated high-fliers.

So once had he been marked. By the time he had reached the rank of Assistant Secretary, he had been spoken of as a possible Head of Department. If all had gone well he would be leaving now with his K, Sir Marcus Dupayne, with a string of City companies ready to offer him directorships. That was what he had expected, what Alison had expected. Sometimes he thought that this was why she had married him. His own professional ambition had been strong but disciplined, aware always of the unpredictability of suc­cess. His wife’s had been rampant, embarrassingly public. Every social occasion had been arranged with his success in view. A din­ner party wasn’t a meeting of friends, it was a ploy in a carefully thought-out campaign. The fact that nothing she could do would ever influence his career, that his life outside the office was of no importance provided it was not publicly disgraceful, never entered her consciousness. He would occasionally say, “I’m not aiming to end up as a bishop, a headmaster or a Minister. I’m not going to be damned or demoted because the claret was corked.”

He had come with a duster in his briefcase and now checked that all the drawers of the desk had been cleared. in the bottom left— hand drawer his exploring hand found a stub of pencil. How many years, he wondered, had that lain there? He examined his fingers, crusted with grey dust, and wiped them on the duster which he folded carefully over the dirt and placed in his canvas bag. His brief­case he would leave on his desk. The gold royal insignia on the case had faded now, but it brought a memory: the day when he had first been issued with an official black briefcase, its insignia bright as a badge of office.

He had held the obligatory farewell drinks party before lun­cheon. The Permanent Secretary had paid the expected compli­ments with a suspicious fluency; he had done this before. A Minister had put in an appearance and only once had glanced discreetly at his watch. There had been an atmosphere of spurious conviviality inter­spersed with moments of silent constraint. By one-thirty people had begun to drift unobtrusively away. It was, after all, Friday. Their weekend arrangements beckoned.

Closing his office door for the last time and entering the empty corridor, he was surprised and a little concerned at his lack of emo­tion. Surely he should be feeling something—regret, mild satisfac­tion, a small surge of nostalgia, the mental acknowledgement of a rite of passage? He felt nothing. There were the usual officials at the reception desk in the entrance hall and both were busy. It relieved him of the obligation to say some embarrassed words of farewell. He decided to take his favourite route to Waterloo, across St. James’s Park, down Northumberland Avenue, across Hungerford foot­bridge. He went through the swing doors for the last time and made his way across Birdcage Walk and into the sweet autumnal dishevel­ment of the Park. In the middle of the bridge over the lake he paused as he always did to contemplate one of London’s most beau­tiful views, across the water and the island to the towers and roofs of Whitehall. Beside him was a mother with a swaddled baby in a three-wheeled pram. Next to her was a toddler throwing bread to the ducks. The air became acrimonious as the birds jostled and scrabbled in a swirl of water. It was a scene which, on his lunchtime walks, he had watched for over twenty years, but now it brought back a recent and disagreeable memory.

A week ago he had taken the same path. There had been a soli­tary woman feeding the ducks with crusts from her sandwiches. She was short, her sturdy body enveloped in a thick tweed coat, a woollen cap drawn down over her ears. The last crumb tossed, she turned and, seeing him, had smiled a little tentatively. From boy­hood he had found unexpected intimacies from strangers repellent, almost threatening, and he had nodded unsmiling and walked quickly away. It had been as curtly dismissive as if she had been propositioning him. He had reached the steps of the Duke of York’s column before sudden realization came. She had been no stranger but Tally Clutton, the housekeeper at the museum. He had failed to recognize her in other than the brown button-up overall that she normally wore. Now the memory provoked a spurt of irritation, as much against her as against himself. It was an embarrassing mistake to have made and one that he would have to put right when they next met. That would be the more difficult as they could be dis­cussing her future. The cottage she lived in rent-free must be worth at least ~35O a week in rent. Hampstead wasn’t cheap, particularly Hampstead with a view of the Heath. If he decided to replace her, the free accommodation would be an inducement. They might be able to attract a married couple, the wife to do the housecleaning, the man to take over the garden. On the other hand, Tally Clutton was hardworking and well liked. It might be imprudent to unsettle the domestic arrangements when there were so many other changes to be put in hand. Caroline, of course, would fight to keep both Clutton and Godby and he was anxious to avoid a fight with Caro­line. There was no problem with Muriel Godby. The woman was cheap and remarkably competent, qualities rare today. There might later be difficulties about the chain of command. Godby obviously saw herself as responsible to Caroline, not unreasonably since it was his sister who had given her the job. But the allocation of duties and responsibilities could wait until the new lease had been signed. He would retain both women. The boy, Ryan Archer, wouldn’t stick at the job for long, the young never did.

He thought, If only I could feel passionately, even strongly about anything. His career had long since failed to provide emotional satis­faction. Even music was losing its power. He remembered the last time, only three weeks ago, when he had played Bach’s Double Vio­lin Concerto with a teacher of the instrument. His performance had been accurate, even sensitive, but it had not come from the heart. Perhaps half a lifetime of conscientious political neutrality, of the careful documentation of both sides of any argument, had bred a debilitating caution of the spirit. But now there was hope. He might find the enthusiasm and fulfilment he craved in taking over the museum that bore his name. He thought, I need this. I can make a suc­cess of it. I’m not going to let Neville take it away from me. Already crossing the road at the Athenaeum, his mind was disengaging from the recent past. The revitalizing of the museum would provide an interest which would replace and redeem the dead undistinguished years.

His homecoming to the detached, boringly conventional house in a leafy road on the outskirts of Wimbledon was no different from any other homecoming. The drawing-room was, as usual, immacu­late. There came from the kitchen a faint but not obtrusive smell of dinner. Alison was sitting before the fire reading the Evening Stan­dard. At his entrance she folded it carefully and rose to greet him.

“Did the Home Secretary turn up?”

           “No, it wouldn’t be expected. The Minister did.”

“Oh well, they’ve always made it plain what they think of you. You’ve never been given the respect you deserve.”

But she spoke with less rancour than he had expected. Watching her, he thought he detected in her voice a suppressed excitement, half guilty and half defiant.

She said, “See to the sherry, will you, darling? There’s a new bot­tle of the Fino in the fridge.”

The endearment was a matter of habit. The persona she had pre­sented to the world for the twenty-three years of their marriage was that of a happy and fortunate wife; other marriages might humiliat­ingly fail, hers was secure.

As he set down the tray of drinks, she said, “I had lunch with Jim and Mavis. They’re planning to go out to Australia for Christmas to see Moira. She and her husband are in Sydney now. I thought I might go with them.”

“Jim and Mavis?”

“The Calverts. You must remember. She’s on the Help the Aged committee with me. They had dinner here a month ago.”

“The redhead with the halitosis?”

“Oh, that isn’t normal. It must have been something she’d eaten. You know how Stephen and Susie have been urging us to visit. The grandchildren too. It seems too good an opportunity to miss, having company on the flight. I must say I’m rather dreading that part of it. Jim is so competent he’ll probably get us an upgrade.”

He said, “I can’t possibly go to Australia this year or next. There’s the museum. I’m taking it over. I thought I’d explained all that to you. It’s going to be a full-time job, at least at first.”

“I realize that, darling, but you can come out and visit for a cou­ple of weeks while I’m there. Escape the winter.”

“How long are you thinking of staying?”

“Six months, a year maybe. There’s no point in going that far just for a short stay. I’d hardly have got over the jet lag. I won’t be staying with Stephen and Susie all the time. No one wants a mother-in-law moving in for months. Jim and Mavis plan to travel. Mavis’s brother Jack will be with us, so we’ll be four, and I won’t feel de trop. A party of three never works.”

He thought, I’m listening to the break-up of my marriage. He was surprised how little he cared.

She went on, “1Ne can afford it, can’t we? You’ll have your retire­ment lump sum?”

“Yes, it can be afforded.”

He looked at her as dispassionately as he might have studied a stranger. At fifty-two she was still handsome with a carefully pre­served, almost clinical elegance. She was still desirable to him, if not often and then not passionately. They made love infrequently, usu­ally after a period when drink and habit induced an insistent sexu­ality soon satisfied. They had nothing new to learn about each other, nothing they wanted to learn. He knew that, for her, these occa­sional joyless couplings were her affirmation that the marriage still existed. She might be unfaithful but she was always conventional. Her love-affairs were discreet rather than furtive. She pretended that they didn’t happen; he pretended that he didn’t know. Their marriage was regulated by a concordat never ratified in words. He provided the income, she ensured that his life was comfortable, his preferences indulged, his meals excellently cooked, that he was spared even the minor inconvenience of housekeeping. They each respected the limits of the other’s tolerance in what was essentially a marriage of convenience. She had been a good mother to Stephen, their only child, and was a doting grandmother to his and Susie’s children. She would be more warmly welcomed in Australia than he would have been.

She had relaxed now, the news given. She said, “What will you do about this house? You won’t want a place this size. It’s probably worth close to three-quarters of a million. The Rawlinsons got six hundred thousand for High Trees and it needed a lot doing to it. If you want to sell before I get back, that’s all right by me. I’m sorry I won’t be here to help but all you need is a reliable firm of removers. Leave it to them.”

So she was thinking of coming back, even if temporarily. Perhaps this new adventure would be no different from the others except in being more prolonged. And then there would be matters to arrange, including her share of that three-quarters of a million.

He said, “Yes, I’ll probably sell, but there’s no hurry.”

“Can’t you move into the fiat at the museum? That’s the obvious plan.

“Caroline wouldn’t agree. She sees the flat as her home since she took it over after Father died.”

“But she doesn’t actually live there, not all the time. She’s got her rooms in the school. You’d be there permanently, able to keep an eye on security. As I remember it, it’s an agreeable enough place, plenty of room. I think you would be very comfortable there.”

“Caroline needs to get away from the school occasionally. Keep­ing the flat will be her price for cooperating in keeping the museum open. I need her vote. You know about the trust deed.”

“I’ve never understood it.”

“It’s simple enough. Any major decision regarding the museum, including the negotiation of a new lease, requires the consent of the three trustees. If Neville won’t sign, we’re finished.”

And now she was roused to genuine indignation. She might be planning to leave him for a lover, to stay away or return as the whim took her, but in any dispute with the family she would be on his side. She was capable of fighting ruthlessly for what she thought he wanted.

She cried, “Then you and Caroline must make him! What’s it to him anyway? He’s got his own job. He’s never cared a damn about the museum. You can’t have your whole future life ruined because Neville won’t sign a piece of paper. You must put a stop to that nonsense.”

He took up the sherry bottle and, moving over to her, refilled both their glasses. They raised them simultaneously as if in a pledge.

“Yes,” he said gravely. “If necessary I must put a stop to Neville.”

Read on to find out if he does put a stop to Neville in The Murder Room.

Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Murder Room.htm


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