The Black Tower— a P.D. James Classic

By 1975, more than dozen years since her first attempt in 1962, P.D. James had certainly hit her stride in writing psychological murder mystery novels. This novel reflects her descriptive powers in full flower, and her ability to create a mood or an ethos at it’s peak. And the mood is bleak, black, cold, misty, and I could go on. This is a novel about a rehabilitation hospital called Toynton Grange near the sea, and the ‘folly’ the black tower, which hovers over the sea.

For the sake of clarity (since many Americans have no idea what a ‘folly’ is), a folly is the recreation of some structure from the past only usually in miniature– a miniature temple for example, or monument, or in this case a seaside tower. Building such things was a preoccupation of the wealthy Victorians who had far too much time and money on their hands (think two generations before Downton Abbey).

Adding to the rather sullen mood of the novel is the fact that our hero, Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard is at a truly low ebb. He’s convalescing from mono, and he’s actually contemplating giving up the Yard and starting a new life. Missing in action are any of Dalgleish’ interesting team of investigators. Dalgleish is officially on leave and on holiday of a sort, but he has received a letter from an old friend, and former rector of his— a priest by the name of Baddeley who lives at Toynton Grange. Unfortunately for Dalgleish, when he arrives after getting out of the hospital, his old friend and priest is already dead, cremated, and for good measure, buried. Was there foul play? It’s hard to tell, and Dalgleish, his senses dulled by disease isn’t really on top of his game physically or mentally. Indeed, he isn’t up for an investigation at all… and yet… and yet….. something is rotten in Toynton Grange.

P.D. James is a master of creating odd and eccentric and indeed unappealing, though interesting characters, and this novel is full of them. Other than Dalgleish himself and the local constabulary it is hard to muster up much sympathy for any of this sad and pathetic lot. If one of your pre-requisites for liking a novel is that it must have several likable characters, abandon hope with this novel.

James is also a master of using the small detail as providing key clues, or as Dalgleish puts it, if you can find the tell tale loose thread, the whole tale will come unraveled and its scheme becomes plain. But it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack at times. James is also big on delayed gratification. If you were hoping that there would be little revelations along the way before the big reveal at the end, then abandon hope. This is a true mystery, and as such it does not give up its secrets willingly or to the distracted reader who is not concentrating all that well. This mystery requires thought and careful concentration to solve. It is more cerebral than much American pulp mystery fiction.

For the Christian reader, there is much in this novel to contemplate. The community is led by a quasi-priest who takes his disabled charges off to Lourdes twice annually. They have services regularly on the grounds, even a live in priest (Baddeley) who regularly takes confession. Were that not enough, Dalgleish himself is the son of a minister. Sadly the sort of Christianity one usually runs into in James’ novels is weak, a pale shadow of the real thing. But the novels often dwell on profoundly Christian themes— in this case Evil with a capital E, and how the forces of good should deal with it. If you are interested in other of her novels that even more emphatically deal with Christian themes see Original Sin (a real corker of a novel) or Death in Holy Orders.

It’s hard to know just when the light goes on, and a good writer becomes a great one, with expansive descriptive powers, but by the time this novel was written P.D. James was already there, and this novels has been proclaimed by many a masterpiece of its kind. I don’t know if I would go that far, but it’s terrific and will retain your interest to the very end. So get out your magnifying glass and your Sherlock Holmes hat and try your hand at solving this mystery by the sea. The sea may give up its dead, but it seldom gives up its secrets.


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