book: The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) by P.D. James


Let’s try to be quick about this . . .

Cordelia Gray runs a detective agency whose main source of income is finding lost pets. However, she’s hired to accompany actress Clarissa Lisle for a weekend on the small island of Courcy, off the Dorset coast, for a vanity performance in the private theater there of The Duchess of Malfi.

The fading actress has for years been receiving anonymous notes that read a bit like death threats. No one suspects her life might be in danger — in fact, there’s suspicion that the manipulative Clarissa might be sending the notes herself — but in due course she’s found murdered. Who among the collection of oddballs on the island for the performance could be the guilty party?

The setup’s hugely artificial, of course, with all sorts of unlikelihoods being invoked to make sure the cast of suspects is a limited one, but that didn’t bother me: it’s a frequent characteristic of classic mysteries. I was reminded of the setting in James’s much later novel, The Lighthouse : Combe Island, off the northern Cornish coast rather than the southern Dorset coast, but near enough.

I was reminded of The Lighthouse in other ways, too, most of them not good. Lemme explain. Many years ago I read a couple of James’s early novels, was pretty bored by them, and gave up on her. More recently I tried two or three of her later novels, which tend to be considerably longer (why is this so often the case with modern mystery writers?), and was bored by them too: they tend to be grossly overwritten, drearily pompous . . . and, besides, I can’t stand the ghastly poet-copper-aristocrat Adam Dalgliesh, even though he’s basically a rehash of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, whose company I quite enjoy.

So recently, looking at the shelves and spotting I had a couple of James’s early novels still unread, I thought it might be a good idea to give her another try — after all, my tastes have changed over the decades and I might enjoy now what bored me then. And these were a lot shorter than slabs like The Lighthouse and The Murder Room.

But, oh boy, was my optimism misplaced. All the same obnoxious self-importance was here, too, even at this relatively early stage in James’s career. The opening chapter’s quite jolly, but then we have a hundred or so pages of abject dreariness, during which James shows off her penchant for description — or over-description. When a box of Victorian toys is mentioned (lost the page number) we have to have ten or twelve lines itemizing its contents — details that are of zero interest to the plot or, for that matter, this reader. The bloodless Cordelia wears a guernsey, because that’s posher than her wearing a jersey. When Cordelia arrives in the guest bedroom she’s been allocated, its fixtures and fittings are described at such tedious length that I was well on the way to throwing the book at the wall.

But then at last the description of the bedroom ended. Phew! Lucky escape, wall! Except then the text moved on to describe Cordelia’s private bathroom at similar excruciating length . . .

For a couple of score pages after the discovery of the murder, James remembers what the art of storytelling is supposed to be all about, and my spirits temporarily rose. But it wasn’t to last. Back into the swamp I dove (there’s even a couple of paragraphs about bloody Adam Dalgliesh[*]) until finally I reached the protracted action sequence that serves as the book’s grand climax — and, while this lasted, I was romping through the pages. Clearly the author could do the stuff when she wanted to; why on earth did she spend so much of her writing time not doing it?

So much for my being quick.

All in all, then, you’ll not be surprised to learn that The Skull Beneath the Skin is headed for a library sale, as are the other P.D. James books from my shelves. I know lots of readers hold the author in high regard, and I’m sure her work has sterling qualities that somehow I’m missing, but my shelves are bulging with books I want to read. So . . .

[*] Page 232 is the one to skip.

8 thoughts on “book: The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) by P.D. James

  1. You lost me at the notion that someone could make a living looking for lost pets. Not an author I have ever tried, and after reading all your thoughts neither do I intend to. Cheers, for warning me off.

    • Lots of other people like her work far better than I do, so please don’t feel you ought to take my word for it! That said, having some inkling of your tastes, I don’t reckon you’d be missing much of interest to you.

      I’m expecting at any moment that the concerted fury of a million P.D. James fans will descend on me . . .

  2. Great, informative review! You are extremely fair by continuing to underline that PD James has her fans, and, like you, I have always been meaning to visit her books again after a couple disappointing trials decades ago. Maybe it’s me, I thought, and the glacial pacing improves elsewhere. (Or very probably it doesn’t.)

    Curiously, I’m auditing a Science Fiction survey course, because I felt I never gave that genre a fair shake. Only a couple weeks in, but I’m enjoying the new-to-me stories greatly, and the authors of the best ones know how to keep the pace pulsing along. “Arena” by Fredric Brown and “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick have been early standouts. Of course, their pulp pedigree may not be on the level of the estimable James, but they also don’t spend multiple paragraphs describing a trunk of children’s toys…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jason. I’m glad to learn I’m not the only one who’s had this trouble with P.D. James. I tried a couple of Susan Hill’s “Simon Serailler” series and felt they suffered from the same virus, almost as if Hill were trying to emulate James’s Litterary Stile.

      I know and love those two sf stories you mention, especially the Dick. I’ve been reading a few of Brown’s crime novellas/novels recently, but still have plenty more to explore.

      • I saw your review a few months ago for Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants, a later Brown story. I think I’ve read The Fabulous Clipjoint ages ago, and maybe one other. Thanks again for all of the entertaining and informative book and movie reviews on your site!

        • I don’t think I’ve read The Fabulous Clipjoint, unless it was so long ago that I don’t remember having done so. I’m pretty certain I have a copy somewhere, though. I must see if I can dig it out.

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