The harsh and somber world of P.D. James

A Taste for Death, by P.D. James. New York: Knopf. 480 pp. $18.95. P.D. James is a writer who seriously and comprehensively imagines the reality of what she writes, so that while, like any skilled mystery writer, she offers us the satisfaction of a clear solution, her novels also uncover a complexity that undercuts facile expectations.

In fact, James first took up the mystery genre thinking that once she established a name for herself, she would go on to better, more ``legitimate'' forms.

Many novels later (her one non-mystery, ``Innocent Blood,'' was suspenseful and mysterious), she's still at it. Her latest book, ``A Taste for Death,'' is again a mystery, featuring her likable and impressive hero, the melancholy, coolly professional, poetry-writing police detective Adam Dalgliesh.

James has reached the enviable position of enjoying the best of two worlds, reaping the rewards that come from being a successful mystery writer while gaining the respect accorded a ``serious'' writer (i.e., one who is not dismissed as a mere producer of mysteries, science fiction, or other subdivisions of the novelistic genre).

There is no question that James writes outstandingly good mystery novels. But, in taking up a book like ``A Taste for Death,'' one finds oneself asking, is this -- as other critics have alleged -- a substantial work in its own right or merely a superior detective tale? What is it that makes her work in some way special?

It's not that she writes exceptionally well. In this book, for example, we find awkward-sounding dialogue and a few sentences that simply would not have been left standing by a writer more sensitive to language. James writes well enough, but she is no Raymond Chandler. Nor an Agatha Christie: Her plots, though well crafted, cannot be described as marvels of ingenuity. They hold our attention, they surprise and shock without straining credulity, but they lack that touch of sheer inevitability that takes us with the force of a revelation.

Yet it is fair to say that one reads a P.D. James novel in something like the same spirit that one reads a novel by Zola, Balzac, Thackeray, or Dickens. She is a kind of 19th-century realist, committed to the painstaking representation of the texture of daily life and the peculiarity and uniqueness of each individual character. James has a Dickensian sense of the city and its environs and of the loneliness, variety, and oddity of the private existences within it. And, whether she explores the private life of a central character like Kate Miskin -- ambitious, professional, yet quietly vulnerable -- or a minor character like Emily Wharton -- the earnest and kind old lady who discovers the victims' bodies on her way to do the flowers at church -- the same care is evident, the same roundedness of portraiture.

In view of James's gift for understanding her characters, it is ironic that one of the few flaws in this novel should involve her portrait of a very important character, Sir Paul Berowne, found dead along with a hapless tramp in the novel's grisly opening scene. Sir Paul, as we learn, changed the course of his life because of an intense religious experience. Dalgliesh is anxious to discover its meaning and it crops up repeatedly as an unsolved problem in the case, but its nature and significance are never really illuminated. It seems possible, alas, that Sir Paul's experience remains as much a mystery to James as it is to her characters.

Although the bulk of this novel contains no graphic violence, it seems fair to warn the reader that the gruesomeness of its opening scene is exceeded by the horrifying violence of its conclusion. The violence is undoubtedly disturbing, but finally, not entirely out of place in the harsh and somber world of P.D. James. Perhaps this grim vision is the key to why she continues to choose to work in the genre of mystery and crime.

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