Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James (2001 fiction)
This is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery. I was immediately envisioning TV’s policemen, authentic monastic scenery. P.D. James makes any such envisioning effort unnecessary. In the tightly controlled environment of an East Anglian country abbey, she conjures up a varied cast of lay and clerical characters. She slowly unravels a fiendishly complicated plot. She invigorates the jerky forward piece with extraordinarily detailed descriptions: works of art, meals, revealing conversations, copulation. Art: VanDerWeyden’s Doom—the tenebrious, indecipherable scene; a vivid depiction of the Last Judgment; Christ in glory; the Devil, with scaly tail and grinning lascivious jaws, the personification of horror, prepared to claim his prize; the damned were a squirming mass of black, pot-bellied, open mouthed hermaphrodites. Beside them a group of lesser devils with pitchforks and chains were busily shoving their victims into the jaws of an immense fish with teeth like a row of swords. A James meal: The first course, baked aubergines and peppers in olive oil; the main course, cassoulet with boiled potatoes, carrots, and beans, followed by fruit and cheese and biscuits. The weather: A morning of penetrating chill. The first
light had spread itself, pink as diluted blood, over the grey waste of sea (p. 303). Again: A perfect day in mid-April in which sky, sea, and the quickening earth conspired in a soft compliance of settled beauty (p. 405). This is a book to be savored. Parts, chapters, and situations
stand alone and yet coalesce in satisfying whole.
Reviewed by Martin Waldron