Monday, September 25, 2023

70. The Black Tower by P.D. James

Hmm, so this is only the second P.D. James that I have read and the first with Adam Dalgliesh, who was her main character recurring detective.  As I started writing this, I thought this was one of the last in the series, as he is convalescing from some kind of illness and planning on retiring.  I see with a quick check that this is only the fifth of fourteen, so little harm done to a chronology nerd like myself.

In the Black Tower, he decides to go to the Dorset countryside to respond to the summons of an old family friend and colleague to his father (who had some religious role), the curate Father Badderley.  Upon arriving at Toynton Grange, a home for the disabled, he discovers that Father Badderley had died of a heart attack a week earlier.  It seems unsurprising as he was 80 but the fact of the letter (he had not heard from him since he was a child and referred to needing Dalgliesh's help as a police commander) and some odd inconsistencies (he was wearing his habit, which he should have take off and his last diary was missing) push Dalgliesh to ambivalently poke around.

Much of the book is an exploration of this strange place, led by a semi-messianic pseudo-monk who claims to have experienced a healing miracle from debilitating disease paralysis himself.  Even before any actual crime, there is much skulduggery amongst the patients and the staff.  Many of the people that work there have scandalous pasts (the doctor who had an affair with an underage girl, the ex-con orderly, the nurse who hit a patient) and are there working for cheap and lodgings because they couldn't get work anywhere else.  The patients themselves all have various tragic pasts and difficult personalities above and beyond their disabilities.  And of course, actual skulduggery is afoot, which goes beyond Father Badderley's suspicious death.  Previously, another patient whom everyone hated for his cruel went tumbling over a cliff edge into the sea, either due to suicide or because the brakes on his wheelchair failed.  

I actually had to resort to a piece of scrap paper with all the characters listed and it really helped a lot to get me engaged.  I struggled through at first, but once I hit page 100 and more or less had the characters in my head (these white people with the white people names, who can keep them apart?), I got quite intrigued.  It ended up being a bit too long and one grows tired of the weary resentment of post-colonial England (everybody is just so unhappy and narrow) but I definitely wanted to find out the solution.  The reveal is actually quite cool and satisfying and I imagine if you were already a fan of Dalgliesh you would have been quite psyched to know that it spurred him to get back into the game and abandon his retirement. 

I won't seek out her books, but it is good to know they are out there if my on deck shelf ever runs dry (ha!) and I need a good mystery.  She also had quite a tough life and basically wrote her way to incredible success in life.  Pretty impressive.

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