Cover her Face— P.D. James’s First Novel

The official introduction to P.D. James on Amazon is daunting…. it reads as follows:

“P.D. James was born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge High School. Widely acknowledged as “the greatest contemporary writer of classic crime” (The London Sunday Times), she has written twenty books and been awarded major prizes for her crime writing in Great Britain, America, Italy, and Scandinavia. After 30 years in the civil service, including a senior position in the Police and Criminal Justice Departments of Great Britain’s Home Office, she held a series of distinguished cultural and literary offices, among them Governor of the BBC, on the boards of the Arts Council and British Council and as a magistrate in London. She is the lifelong President of the Society of Authors. She was awarded the OBE in 1983 and created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. In 1999 she was given the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award. She has honorary doctorates from seven British universities. James is the widow of a doctor and has two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.”

But even P.D. James had to start somewhere when it comes to writing fiction, and in this case murder mystery fiction. And where she started is with the novel ‘Cover her Face’. Do I really need to say that it is far from her finest hour? It is. The writing is spare compared to the full expanse of her descriptive powers seen in Death in Holy Orders or Original Sin, two of my all time favorites. The notable detective Adam Dagleish only comes into the tale more than 50 pages into the novel, and even then, we do not learn a great deal about him. And the characters in this novel are not exactly what you would call likable. Pitiable in some cases, but not likable. And then there is Sally Jupp, the maid who gets herself killed on the day of the annual fete on the grounds of the manor house where she serves. But why, and by whom? It appears on the surface to be an inside job, but who really wanted such a minor figure in the household dead?

What this novel shares in common with James’ later, more riveting fiction, is the element of surprises. Not only is the ending rather a surprise, there are surprise revelations along the way which, while plausible, you definitely didn’t see coming. And here is where I say that what makes a suspense novel suspenseful is not merely surprise, but the avoidance of a premature resolution of the tension in the tale. However much we might like a story to be wrapped up neat with a bow, the wise author does not lay down her cards except as needed, and one at a time. Something needs to be left to the imagination, which is of course the virtue of reading novels over seeing explicit movies which leave next to nothing to the imagination.

When one reads a good novel, and ‘Cover her Face’ is a good first novel, it stirs the imagination and conjures up images in one’s mind. In this case one gets images of the manor house, the grounds, the garage, the rooms in the house, the clothing being worn, and so on. James wisely does not describe all these in such detail that the reader has nothing left to supply.

P.D. James began her award winning career as a novelist in 1962 with this novel, just about the time I began to read serious novels. This one however escaped my attention until 2012. One of the great things about reading a series of excellent novels, is that one gets to see the characters develop and change over a considerable period of time. In this case, I would say that ‘Cover her Face’ is the mere aperitif, or tease, for what is to follow. I would not have guessed what Dagleish would become on the basis of this spare start. But then the virtue of a start is that you have put the ball in play.

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