Written by PD James — Has it really been 42 years since this PD James novel came out, one of her best-known and most-loved works? Although it was her fourth book featuring poet and police detective Adam Dalgliesh, it was the first, and certainly not the last, to win awards. It took the CWA Silver Dagger in 1971, and was runner-up for The Mystery Writers of America’s Best Novel Award the same year. Shroud for a Nightingale was one of her first novels to be adapted for TV in 1984, starring Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh. He went on to play the complex detective for 15 years.
This is the quintessential closed community – even a closed room – mystery, with a fairly short list of suspects, all known to each other and all having something to hide. During an inspection at the Nightingale Nursing College, the ‘mock’ patient during a classroom demonstration of tube feeding is fatally poisoned. Who would want to murder inoffensive student nurse Pearce? Then it emerges that she had been a last-minute replacement for another of the students, Jo Fallon, who had suddenly succumbed to a nasty bout of flu. When Fallon herself is found dead in her room less than two weeks later, the other residents of the training college and Chief Inspector Dalgliesh suspect that the two deaths are connected.
The complexity of the characters is one of the delights when reading PD James. Unlikeable characters turn out to have wholly innocent explanations for their rather suspicious carrying-on, while the more likeable ones have the most to hide. The author is sharply observant and remorseless in her portrayal of the arrogance of surgeons and the unconscious selfishness of young girls in a school environment.
Living, breathing atmosphere
James is a peerless creator of atmosphere. She herself has always claimed that the first thing that comes to her when embarking upon a new novel is the setting. Undoubtedly, Nightingale House, the setting for most of the events in this book, singularly inappropriate for a nursing college, is almost as vividly described as any of the characters. It is a dark, nasty house, an evil house, where crimes of abuse, neglect and death had previously taken place. The final scene, when the house is finally demolished, is a masterpiece of descriptive writing which conveys so much more than just a sense of place.
And what of Dalgliesh himself? He is still finding himself in this early novel, not quite as fully developed as in later ones. Indeed, he is not even quite as sympathetic, as we are not privy to his innermost thoughts. The author admits she gave him all the qualities she admires: intelligent, sensitive, compassionate, but not sentimental. He is very private, does not wear his heart on his sleeve. “In real life, he would probably have been a musician but I didn’t know enough about music to sound credible, so I made him a poet,” she says. Far from letting his detecting work interfere with his poetry, he is by far a better poet for being a detective. PD James has not expressed dissatisfaction with the televised adaptations of her Dalgliesh novels. “I would have been very surprised if he had been exactly how I imagined Dalgliesh,” she says. The author is far more acerbic about the on-screen representation of her other detective, Cordelia Gray. “They essentially killed off the Cordelia character for me and I was unable to write anything more about her,” she adds. Perhaps that is why she subsequently introduced Kate Miskin as a partner for Dalgliesh.
Golden Age reinvented
Her novels still enchant readers of all ages, but at the same time there is a sort of timeless quality to them. This is an author who took on the constructs of crime fiction of the Golden Age and made them resolutely her own. Yet, perhaps because of her very longevity – she is still planning another Dalgliesh novel – it is impossible to box her into any single decade, other than to say that this is unhurried prose that you would expect from a few decades ago. There is a real sense of ‘we’ve got all the time in the world’ in a PD James novel. The plot does not shock or turn you and your expectations upside down in a single instant. Instead, it builds atmosphere brushstroke by brushstroke, with many cunning and telling little details.
For example, we are introduced to Miss Muriel Beale and her flatmate Miss Angela Burrows in the first chapter of the book in such vivid detail that we cannot help but believe that they are going to be the main protagonists. They then recede completely into the background until very near the end of the book, when they reveal one minor but important point to help Dalgliesh in his investigations. You feel you are in the hands of a very accomplished storyteller, completely in control of her material, just like Jane Austen, whom James hugely admires. “Don’t you think Austen would have been a very good crime fiction writer, if she were writing today? Emma is in essence a detective novel,” she says.
Among her other influences she includes Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and her prose is very reminiscent at times of Dorothy Sayers, with her erudite allusions and measured pace. Baroness James herself is rather diffident when she is told she is the living Queen of Crime. She always describes herself as one of many female mystery writers. “If I am a queen, it’s only because I am surrounded by a hugely talented court of women writers,” she says. Her voice, however, is utterly unique and compelling, and I cannot think of many people writing like her today. Perhaps Elizabeth George, Karin Fossum and Louise Penny are the ones carrying that carefully crafted balance of plot, theme, pace, atmosphere and complex characters forward.