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Onyx reviews: Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James

Adam Dalgliesh, the Scotland Yard detective and poet, is asked to look into the death of Ronald Treeves, a seminarian at St. Anselm's, a theological college in coastal East Anglia. For Dalgliesh, who spent many summer vacations in the college as a youth with his minister father, the return to St. Anselm's is tinged with nostalgia.

Treeves was found buried in a mound of gravel at the base of a dangerous cliff near the college. The coroner's inquest concluded the death was accidental, but some suspect that Treeves either committed suicide or was murdered. Treeves' father, a rich and powerful businessman, badgers Scotland Yard into examining the circumstances surrounding his son's death.

St. Anselm's does not welcome the police investigation. The college is on rocky ground both literally and figuratively. While the North Sea chews off more and more of the land on which it is situated each year, the Church is looking for excuses to shut the seminary. It is seen as eccentric and elitist at a time when the Church wants to modernize and centralize its instructional facilities. The staff fears that the inquiry will be used as a reason to shut the school down even sooner than anticipated.

Before Dalgliesh arrives, there is another casualty. Readers see that the death of long-time employee Margaret Munroe was not due to natural causes, as it seems. Events surrounding Ronald Treeves' accident had reminded her of something from the past which she discussed with someone at St. Anselm's. She was murdered shortly thereafter to keep the past buried.

St. Anselm's is host to several other guests who are welcome to varying degrees. The least welcome is Archdeacon Matthew Crampton, who is determined to see the school dismantled and shut down, the sooner the better. There is more than theological philosophy at stake; St. Anselm's owns art valued in the millions. The disposition of these artifacts is an on-going debate among the priests, who stand to inherit them if the school closes while they are still on-site, and the Church, which is eager to have them removed and distributed elsewhere.

Also visiting for the weekend is Police Inspector Yarwood, who frequently uses St. Anselm's as a retreat from the stresses of his job. One of the priests has a troubled history with Yarwood and his presence is a source of discomfort for the man. Archdeacon Crampton is also unhappy to see Yarwood.

James stirs into the pot an incestuous relationship, a mysterious and possibly forged letter from Pontius Pilate, and a brutal murder that crystallizes the investigation, making it obvious, finally, that a killer is among them. This murder, which occurs in the church on a stormy night, takes place while the majority of St. Anselm's regular residents are off-site, dramatically reducing the cast of suspects. Conveniently, the storm brings down a tree, eliminating the possibility that anyone could leave the seminary after the crime. From this point on, Death in Holy Orders becomes a classic enclosed British murder mystery, with Dalgliesh and his team interviewing suspects and extracting secrets, many of which are red herrings. James easily manages to point the finger at just about everyone left at St. Anselm's.

James, now in her early 80s, is at the top of her game. Deep, troubled characters populate the novel. Dalgliesh is probably the least likely of them, but his charm and presence make up for his idiosyncrasy. James has a thoroughly modern understanding of society while preserving the timeless feeling of the British cozy murder mystery. The story is complex, believable and engrossing, and following her trail to the solution to the murders is only part of the book's enjoyment.

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