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19th December
2011
written by Steph

Hot on the heels of my dance with Dame Christie, I decided my lust for murder mysteries hadn’t been slaked, so I decided to take a turn with another queen of crime. Not only is Cover Her Face the first published P.D. James mystery, but it was actually my first dalliance with James’s writing at all. After my disastrous first date with Dorothy L. Sayers stemming from my reading Gaudy Night before picking up any of her other books, I have become a rather staunch adherent to reading serial fiction in chronological order, even when others claim it is not necessary, so for those of you who feel similarly and have yet to become acquainted with Detective Adam Dalgliesh, this is the place to start. The following theory is just based on wild conjecture on my part, but I think that readers may be the most idiosyncratic when it comes to their taste in mystery novels. Little old grannies may suddenly profess a penchant for dark Scandinavian noir, and ostensibly there is even a market for readers who prefer crimes that are cracked by animal sleuths (Wikipedia tells me that Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” mystery series, numbered 29 titles!). Personally, I’m a “Golden Age” mystery fan, loving my crimes to be relatively bloodless, to take place between 1910 – 1950, and to be situated in England if at all possible. I have no idea why that trifecta is pretty much the holy trinity when it comes to mystery novels, but there you have it. To me, these types of novels are pretty much the ultimate in comfort reading, and rarely do they fail to delight me. And of course there are exceptions to this rule (as my love of Tana French, clearly displays), but this is why it’s a rule and not a law. Cover Her Face ticks 2 out of my desired traits in a mystery, as its only pitfall is that it was first published in 1962, which is a bit late for my tastes. BUT, despite being a bit tardy to the mystery party, I have to say that the overall vibe to this novel is very much in the style of an earlier, “quaint” mystery and I often had to remind myself about the decade that the story was taking place. First off, it features a locked room mystery (which is apparently not James’s usual style, but I suppose it was a good way of testing the waters with her) that occurs in a large English country manor, and the victim in question is a strangled maid who had been relegated to the fringes of society due to her having had a child out of wedlock. The treatment of Sally due to her status as an unwed mother was actually really interesting to me, because on the one hand, most Golden Age mysteries don’t dabble in such risqué material, BUT on the other hand, it seemed a bit ridiculous to me that being a single mother would be so scandalous because the ‘60s weren’t really THAT long ago, so it was a fun exercise to mentally time travel to that time and walk a mile in the shoes of woman who has not only had premarital sex, but is also unrepentant about the fact and is still quite openly sexual and realize just how scandalous, ruinous, and threatening such a thing was. So yes, technically Cover Her Face doesn’t take place between the wars (nor immediately follow WWII), but it does have enough of historical tint to it that it felt appropriate. In addition to Sally’s scandal, there were also several wildly sexist moments such as jokes about women not being able to do sums because everyone knows that you can’t be good at math if you have a vagina, and also there is this ridiculously blasé recounting of an incident of sexual harassment in the workplace (I mean, what is wrong with these women who put up a fuss when a bloke steals a few kisses and engages in a little groping?), which I hope would throw most modern readers for a loop. It’s just funny that a woman having sex was such a big deal, but actually seeing women as intelligent people in their own right was still not a prevalent mode of thinking in the 1960s. It actually boggles the mind, really! Obviously I find these sentiments fairly objectionable, but I admit I can’t really get myself worked up about them since for better or for worse, the book is a product of its time and as unbelievable as some of these things may be, at least I can say that I live in a world where my ability to add isn’t called into question due to my sex. Well, most of the time… anybody else remember when ex-Harvard president Lawrence Summers stepped in it in 2005 by suggesting that genetic factors might limit women’s ability to reason mathematically and scientifically? So maybe, James’s novel is still more relevant today than it might first appear on face value. Sigh. Anyway, the social context of this novel was clearly intriguing, but what of the mystery itself? Apparently Cover Her Face is not typical of James’s usual style, as the locked door mystery isn’t really her thing, but even still I think she did it quite well. The mystery portion of this novel wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was filled with all the classic elements that one would expect in a mystery, particularly in terms of red herrings and possible suspects. I pretty much wound up suspecting everyone EXCEPT the actual murderer by the end of the novel, so even if James didn’t do anything especially new here, she still managed to outwit me until the end (and yes, Dalgleish keeps us in suspense until the final five pages of the book regarding the murderer’s identity (which he reveals only after he has assembled all of the suspects together in the drawing room)). I do think that part of why I was surprised by the murderer’s identity is because I felt that the resulting motive felt like the weakest of all those that were possibly at play, but in the end I had such a fun time getting to the big reveal, I didn’t really mind that. On the whole, the pace was perhaps a bit more leisurely than some would prefer, but I was never bored and I think James did a good job of leaving enough enticing tidbits along the way to keep me reading. And I must say that the writing itself was really very good: it was rather witty and even funny at times, and I think it’s perfect to prove that even a potboiler can feature strong writing that at times soars above simply being workmanlike in its scope. While the mystery itself wasn’t anything special or remarkable, I do think that the writing and the consideration of social issues elevated the novel above and beyond your average mystery. The only thing I find myself on the fence about is James’s choice of leading man. For much of the novel, I actually felt like Dalgleish was rarely present and even when he was, I never felt he was playing center-stage. There are some hints about a titillating backstory, but I have to say that by the end of it, I wasn’t feeling very attached to him or like I had any strong notion of his character. Mostly, I was indifferent, but given that this book is seen more as an opportunity for James to cut her teeth, I certainly intend to see how she evolves in her second novel, A Mind to Murder, which is apparently more psychological in nature, and thereby truer to the type of fiction that has brought James such renown. Definitely looking forward to it! Rating: 4 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 12/19/2011

    I really enjoyed reading this review because even though I have zero interest in James’ mystery series, your thoughts on what you like in a good mystery and your observations on sexism/setting were fascinating and amusing!

    Have you read any Patricia Highsmith? I don’t think it would actually fit any of your requirements — well, she’s pretty bloodless and they take place in the ’30s – ’50s — but they’re so warped, it’s mind blowing (in a good way, I think).

  2. Amanda
    12/19/2011

    Mysteries are such a struggle for me: I love a really good one, but get so frustrated when I realize half way through that I either know what happened OR that the explanation will have to be out-of-this-world ridiculous in order to wrap things up neatly. After trying so many mysteries, I agree with your framework. The first half of the century and set in England/Europe is my favorite. I love Dorothy Sayers and feel frustrated that you started with Gaudy Night! I would encourage you to go back to Have His Carcass or something like that.

    PD James is an absolute favorite even though, as you say, she writes post 1960. The Dagliesh character will develop over the books, so I say to definitely read them in order even though you would not be lost if you were to mix them up. I simply think it will enhance your experience. Have fun!

  3. 12/19/2011

    I first read this about fifteen years ago and then re-read it a couple of years ago and I was *still* captivated right to the end; my plan was to re-read those in the series that I had read (up to Original Sin) and then bring it up-to-date, but I lost track of that, though I want to, still. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying the series so much!

  4. 12/19/2011

    I love PD James, although I have mostly just read the Cordelia Grey series — An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a good a book as it is a title!

    My author rec for you: Charlotte Armstrong!

  5. 01/04/2012

    @ Audra: I haven’t read any Highsmith (I keep getting her confused with Patricia Wentworth, another mystery novelist, but not quite so creepy, I think.. I haven’t read any of her either, for the record!), but I do have a copy of Strangers on a Train that I would like to read one of these days. I do like psychological thrillers too, but if I’m looking for a straight up “whodunnit?” kind of mystery then Golden Age ones are my bread and butter.
     
    @ Amanda: You are not the first person to chide me for starting with Gaudy Night! I actually blame Nancy Pearl for that, because I read about the book in one of her BookLust guides and it certainly suggested that it could be read as a stand-alone! So untrue!
     
    @ BiP: I do appreciate that my sieve-like memory for book plots generally allows me to re-read books almost as though they were new. Give me a few years and I’m sure I’ll be right back to not knowing who the killer was in this one!
     
    @ Trisha: Haven’t heard of Armstrong so I will have to check her out! And I remember reading the blurb for Unsuitable Job and thinking it sounded great. If Dalgleish doesn’t suit my fancy, I may very well switch over to Grey!
     
    @ rhapsody: I’ve learned my lesson and good: only read series in the order they were published. You know it drives me batty when foreign series get translated all willy nilly and I don’t know where to start!

  6. 12/19/2011

    My first PD James was Death in Holy Orders, which was quite a ways down the list, and after that I felt loathe to go backwards, so you’re lucky to have started at the beginning. She was quite good in the first I read!

  7. 12/19/2011

    You’re killing me. I generally have no desire to read mysteries, but now? I think I need to read this book.

  8. 12/19/2011

    I have never read P.D. James but think I am going to start with a standalone of hers, Death Comes to Pemberley. It just recently came out and is getting very positive reviews, which is quite unlikely for a sequel to Pride & Prejudice. I’m very excited to try her 🙂

  9. 12/20/2011

    Loved this book.

  10. 12/20/2011

    The only James I have ever read has been The Children of Men, which was more dystopian fiction, and a little bit like The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t read that one, I do highly recommend it! It sounds like this one was rather interesting, but that it had a few limitations. It doesn’t sound as if they were insurmountable though, and it actually sounds like I would really enjoy this one, although this is not my normal genre.

    I also find it irritating that there is a common misconception that women are bad at math just because they are women. It seems a little ridiculous and very offensive, but I loved the way that you expressed your frustration with this in your review.

    Thanks for the excellent review on this one today. I will be picking this book up in the new year!

  11. I would have to echo Audra’s comment. I’ve read James’s Children of Men and one other but wasn’t overly impressed. Excellent, excellent review, and I’ll have to pick this one up.

  12. 01/04/2012

    @ softdrink: I’d love to hear what you thought of this one given that you don’t read many mysteries! I bet P.D. James could inspire a song from you!
     
    @ Aarti: I’ve actually heard mixed things about Death Comes to Pemberley, so I will be curious to see what you think of it! I generally stay far away from anything Austen-related that isn’t by Austen herself, so even though James is writing this sequel, I’m still leery!
     
    @ Mystica: Well really, it’s very rare that a mystery goes wrong for me. I’m glad you liked this one too!
     
    @ zibilee: I definitely am intrigued by the premise of Children of Men (I’ve not seen the movie or read the book), and you know I love dystopian fic, so I’m sure I’ll read it one day. I hope that if you pick this one up that you’ll have fun with it!
     
    @ jenn: I always think it’s fun to see how authors started out their careers – sometimes you find that they started strong and then petered out, and other times you find that time allows them to really hone their craft. Given that this is my first James, I’ll be interested to see how she develops as a writer.
     
    @ Alex: I want to try Dorothy again! I even have Whose Body so that I can be properly introduced to Lord Peter!
     
    @ Nishita: I think I’ve read some other reviews suggesting that Dalgleish isn’t as charismatic as he could be, so the jury’s still out on him. If I don’t warm up to him after a few more books then perhaps I’ll try some of James’s other detectives.

  13. Aarti’s comment is basically what I wanted to say. I’m waiting for Death Comes to Pemberley to come out on paperback to try my 1st PD James. Last year was my “Dorothy Sayers” Year, but probably because I started at the beginning.

  14. 12/29/2011

    I have to agree with you about reading books in chronological order. I read a couple of James’ later books featuring Dalgleish and I came out feeling pretty underwhelmed.

    Maybe I would appreciate these books if I read from the start.

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