Onyx reviews: The
Murder Room by P.D. James
As murder mysteries go, the motive for this one isn't hard to guess. Three
siblings are heir to the Dupayne Museum, a small, private institution devoted to
England during the 1920s and 1930s. Its lease is about to expire and all three
must agree to renew for the museum to continue. Neville Dupayne thinks the
museum that bears his family name has outlived its usefulness and announces his
plans to withhold his signature at a trustee's meeting. He wants to sell off its
exhibits, the proceeds from which will be split among the three siblings and
So, the identity of the first murder victim is no mystery. However, the lives of
several people will be affected if the Dupayne closes, including the staff and
volunteers, so the question is: which of them is desperate enough to commit
murder to see that the museum stays open?
The first death—and James announces through the table of contents that
ultimately there will be three—doesn't occur until over a hundred pages into
the book. Having established that someone will die, James relies on that
suspense to keep readers going as she steps back to take a look at the museum
and the major suspects, devoting a chapter to each.
The museum is first seen through the eyes of James' poet/Scotland Yard Commander
Adam Dalgliesh, whose team investigates sensitive crimes. Barely a week before
the first death, Dalgliesh is dragged to the museum—of which he is only
remotely aware—by an acquaintance he meets by chance one day. This isn't the
only time James relies on a rather unconvincing chain of coincidence to move her
story along. She also stretches things a bit to get Dalgliesh involved in this
case, since the crime is not of a particularly sensitive nature.
Patience is rewarded for those who luxuriate in the pace James sets. Instead of
dropping a corpse in the first chapter and then having readers catch up on
potential suspects, she firmly establishes the groundwork so that when the crime
happens readers already have enough information to start forming opinions.
There are red herrings and confusing details aplenty, including a polite but
nervous man who seems to be escaping from the scene of the crime after the first
death but who stops to assist a woman he may have injured on the way out of the
museum. The second murder muddles matters because the victim is, at first,
completely unknown. The killer seems to be copying crimes that are part of the
museum's display in its so-called "Murder Room."
As in life, everyone has secrets, and murder has a way of bringing them into the
open, whether they are related to the crime or not. Dalgliesh must decide which
of these secrets is pertinent and which ones he can safeguard.
He has personal issues of his own, though they are only dealt with glancingly.
He has fallen in love with a young woman he met during his previous case (Death
in Holy Orders) but his demanding schedule and their geography—she's in
Cambridge, he's in London -cause him to cancel several of their dates. Once the
murder case is resolved, he still has this romance to handle, though it is given
short shrift. Hopefully James will devote more time to Dalgliesh, the poet and
crimesolver, in her next novel.
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