You’ve probably noticed that I missed last week’s post. We’ve been moving the blog from one server to another, which kept me from posting for a few days (and may have kept you from READING for a few days). However, the domain name seems to be properly redirecting, so it’s time to catch up.

Last week (Week 5) I spent a good bit of time in a hospital with a family member. All is well and we’re more or less back to normal now, but I’ll tell you something about hospitals–it’s impossible to read anything serious when you’re there. Even if you’re not the sick one. So I decided to take advantage of one of the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” rules and reread a mystery I first read several years ago: P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders.


(I also read about three-quarters of an epic fantasy by George R. R. Martin. It’s been years since I wanted to read an epic fantasy, and I’m not sure why this one was so satisfying, except that it was on my Kindle, which was in my purse, and I was in the mood for it. Didn’t realise until later that George R. R. Martin was one of the writers for Beauty & the Beast–does anyone remember this series? I adored it when I was eighteen because it was SO ROMANTIC. Now I just want arms like Linda Hamilton’s.)

I’m a big James fan, and I enjoyed this book, but I do have a few random observations which are less than glowing…

The Baronness’s age is showing. Every one of her sympathetic characters, no matter what age, race, or gender they are, at some point goes into an internal monologue about how 1) no one in school learns how to read or write properly any more and/or 2) all that PC stuff about racial inequality is SO overblown–there’s no such thing as prejudice any more. Even more jarring is her highly sympathic portrayal of a priest convicted of sexual abuse of choir boys (“It wasn’t really abuse,” one of the characters explains, “just fondling, nothing violent”) and her obvious disapproval of the church authorities who insisted on prosecuting him (they had a “vendetta” and ruined his life by forcing him to confess). AGGHH. Ick.

Second: It’s astounding how highly rationalised the Church of England appears to be, in the world of this book. It’s like a tightly structured corporation with a set of rituals that have to be performed at certain times and places just for the purpose of keeping things orderly…and apparently for no other purpose. James shoehorns into her plot a letter from Pontius Pilate to an underling about the arrangements to dispose of the body of Jesus, a letter which appears to be in the book solely so that her most intelligent priest can say something like, “For one who is sure of the presence of the living Christ, what difference do earthly bones make?” (Paul might have something to say about that.) When I was reading Death in Holy Orders I kept thinking about Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series–a highly enjoyable set of potboilers about the Church of England which tries, more or less unsuccessfully, to convince us that all of those weird supernatural things that happen in churches can be explained by way of Freud.

Third: I’ve always enjoyed those English-manor-house closed-circle mysteries where you have to figure out who, among a limited number of suspects, is most likely to have committed the crime. That’s essentially what Death in Holy Orders is, with the manor house transformed into a theological seminary on a remote spit of land. But this time I found myself growing a little impatient with the whole setup. I can’t even remember, now that I’ve finished it, who did the first murder, and I don’t really care. I think that James’s less conventional mysteries, like Innocent Blood with its themes of revenge and need-based love, or Original Sin, which I’ve always liked, maybe because of the whole murder-your-editor theme (no offense to any editors who may be reading this), are more engaging.

I’ll post about the next book later on; back to nonfiction for this week.

Showing 4 comments
  • A Circle of Quiet

    Original Sin is one of my favorites, too. Have you read her most recent? I love Dalgliesh, but some of the themes bugged me.


  • Heather

    Too funny. I just started re-reading this one as well. I don’t think that any of James’s last four or five books are quite up to the others. I always liked Original Sin best. Maybe it is because, to quote Tina Fey, “I want to go to there!”
    I agree, James does paint the church as clinical, reserved and businesslike, even in her earlier books. Which is the one where the man is murdered in the locked church and the cleaning woman finds him? (If that one is Innocent Blood then I’m going to feel really stupid.) The priests and other representatives of The Church are always so ineffectual and complacent and depressed. Perhaps her parent was a priest, like Dalgliesh’s father and she grew disillusioned with the church?

  • Trish Lawrence

    Yes, the Baroness’s age is showing. I finished The Private Patient in November/December and thought it was great until about the middle and then I started to get bored, plus the ending lasted waaaaay too long. I think it may have been her last book though, as she tied a neat bow on the major relationship throughout the last few books of the series and made general observations about the world at large.

    I do admire her gumption. Eighty-eight! As Jane Smiley’s thesis from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel proposes, novelists burn out after 20-30 years (Austen, Dickens, etc.) and although Baroness James didn’t write for all of her 88 years, she has likely come to an end of a supply of fresh plot and characters. I just hope I stop at a peak and not at a downhill slide. 🙂

    There’s nothing like an audiobook of P.D. James though for a long car trip. Hope your family member is better.

  • Ev.

    I’ve seen books by P.D. James for years in the bookstore and always just walked by. For some reason I thought the author was male. What an assumption to make! (Her presumed masculinity wasn’t the reason I didn’t read them lol). Perhaps I should give her a try.

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