Friday, February 3, 2017

Review of The Black Tower by P.D.James

The Black Tower (Adam Dalgliesh, #5)The Black Tower by P.D. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In this job it wasn't the last piece of jigsaw, the easiest of all, that was important. No, it was the neglected, uninteresting small segment which, slotted into place, suddenly made sense of so many other discarded pieces"

'The New Queen of Crime', proclaims the front cover of "The Black Tower" by P.D.James. Having never heard of either the author or the book before, I set my expectations on an Agatha Christie like murder mystery. In what is probably a nod to the detective genre, we even have a character called Moriarty. The hero here, Adam Dalgliesh - commander of Scotland Yard, is recuperating from an misdiagnosed illness (probably something to do with an earlier novel in the series). A letter from a childhood companion, the fatherly figure of a priest, requesting his professional advice takes him to Toynton Village in coastal England. Father Baddeley is the "Chaplain to Toynton Grange, a private home for the young disabled". Dalgelish takes this as an opportunity to convalesce (a word used often in the book) and brood over his decision to quit detective work. However he reaches to find that his 90 year old friend is dead, buried and cremated. The cause is said to be natural, but Daeglish's is not so sure.

Very soon into the book, if you make past the tough first few pages, you realize that P.D.James is no Agatha Christie. This is no procedural crime investigation. We have a protagonist just back from a near death experience, with his own mid-life crisis. And the atmosphere is dark. P.D.James is a solid writer, capturing the darkness so well that this could be a Scandinavian thriller. The characters only add to the goriness. There is no white or black, and every character is grey. A man who was cured of a disease by a divine miracle, but who does charity for self-gratification. An ex-convict, a nurse with a history of violence, a promiscuous woman struggling to get out of the place, an illegitimate couple, an unpredictable rich art-collector and a kleptomaniac. The disabled, helpless characters have their own perversions too, and their emotions are more of spite, hate and envy than love. There are mystery poison letters floating around, and deaths that look natural. There is no evidence of foul-play though, and our protagonist does not want to get too invested. After all, Toynton Grange seems like a place where not much would be out of ordinary. As "The Black Tower" trots to an unpredictable climax, I felt satisfied at having read the work of a wonderful writer. Others may not feel so, for this book lacks most elements expected of a detective novel. But who are we to fit books into genres and determine how it is to be structured? I would recommend this book for the sheer darkness of the atmosphere, with dialogues such as "We all suffer from a progressive incurable disease. We call it life". Go for it, unless you don't like getting a bit scared and depressed.

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