Death in Holy Orders by PD James

I’ve enjoyed reading this selection of PD James books. As previously noted, I’ve not been reading all of the Dalgliesh novels in order, but I have dipped in and out. This particular outing (the 11th) was published in 2001, and – as do many of the books – starts with a contrivance. A death at a small theological college must be reinvestigated because the victim’s millionaire father insists on it, and goes straight to the top. Dalgliesh, too senior by now to be bothered with this kind of thing in normal circumstances, finds himself – again – at a very closeted, very white, very middle class, community on the Suffolk coast.

A verdict of accidental death was returned, the body cremated, but did the young man found buried in sand on the beach commit suicide — or was he murdered? In short order, another death: the member of staff who found the body. It turns out the college is threatened with closure, and is riven by tensions and resentments. On the weekend Dalgliesh arrives to settle the millionaire’s concerns, a variety of others are visiting: a policeman on a mental health break; an unconvincing researcher; a Cambridge academic who sometimes teaches at the college; the half-sister (and lover) of the college handyman; and the Archdeacon who is determined to close the college down and who is hated and/or resented by a long list of potential suspects when he too turns up dead.

Cosy crime with a somewhat intellectual slant is PD James’ stock-in-trade, and yet there’s something a bit off about this one. One of the priests at the college, Father John, is a convicted paedophile, one who pled guilty to interfering with choir boys at an earlier posting, and who now lives with his elderly and slightly ga-ga sister at the college. The murdered Archdeacon was very much instrumental in his earlier conviction. Nothing unusual about this set-up, except that PD James goes out of her way to sympathise with Father John, who is guilty of “mere” fondling and not much else. Given what has since been revealed about religious figures abusing children, James’ tone here jars somewhat. And this might be forgivable, just about, if this was published in the 1960s, like the earliest Dalgliesh novels: but this is 2001. Even if some of Father John’s supporters might sympathise, it seems unlikely that the young, female, Cambridge academic (Emma Lavenham, who becomes a love interest for the detective) would be so forgiving.

All that aside, it was still enjoyable enough, even if the sheer number of deaths and secrets did stretch credulity.

Makes you want to visit Suffolk and stare moodily out to sea while the coastline slowly crumbles around you.

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