Cover Her Face was the first novel published by PD James (1962). James went on to become one of the most acclaimed crime writers of the second half of the 20th century, as well as dabbling in science fiction and nonfiction. The only book I’ve read of hers before now, though, is An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which I’m fairly sure I enjoyed (though it was before I started keeping records of my reading). I did have a crack at her Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, but couldn’t get through it*. Anyway, Cover Her Face is the first in the Adam Dalgleish series for which James was to become best known. It’s a country house murder mystery, but obviously shifted forward a few decades from the type of country house mysteries that people were writing in the 20s and 30s. The novel deals with some of the cultural shifts that were happening in the early sixties, exploring their effect on a small village community in the run-up to and aftermath of the summer fête. A note on spoilers: every blurb I have seen for this novel identifies the murder victim, and knowing who would it would be didn’t ruin my enjoyment at all, so I will identify the victim in this review. Nonetheless, the murder doesn’t happen for a few chapters, so if you are someone who wants no information at all going into a murder mystery, give this review a miss.
The events at the heart of this novel take place in and around the faded gentility of Martingale, a manor house that has been owned by the Maxies for centuries. Like so many upper-middle class families of the time, the Maxies are running out of money because they’ve lived for too long simply on the proceeds of being wealthy. The son of the family, Stephen, is training to be a surgeon and splits his time between Martingale and St Luke’s Hospital in London. The rest of the family circle also floats in and out of Martingale over the first few chapters of the novel – in true murder mystery tradition, the cast list is quite extensive, so I’ll avoid going through it. Suffice it to say that there are some complex family issues bubbling away under the surface. These have to be put to the side, because it’s nearly time for the summer fête. This has been held in Martingale’s grounds for generations, and it’s one of the few “big house” responsibilities/privileges that remains to them. Getting ready for it is a stressful time for Stephen’s mother Eleanor. The small-p politics of the fête, though, are nothing compared to what is to come: the unexpected murder of Sally Jupp, housemaid and unwed mother. Although most of the family disliked Sally and considered her No Better Than She Ought To Be, her death comes as a terrible shock, especially followed as it is by the arrival of Inspector Dalgleish from Scotland Yard.
For a debut novel, I thought this was very accomplished. The writing is deft, and James steers clear of the mistake lots of mystery writers make at the start of their career, which is to focus so much on moving puzzle pieces into place that the whole thing feels formulaic. The characters, the setting, and the potential motives all feel believable and lived-in. This doesn’t read as a good puzzle mystery, it reads as a good novel that happens to be about a murder. Although there are probably one or two too many characters, most of them are developed well enough to be interesting. There are also little moments of description that just perfectly captured the English summer. For example, this, which neatly describes the way things have been around here lately:
The fickle summer weather which, for the last few weeks, had provided a sample of every climatic condition known to the country with the sole exception of snow, now settled into the warm grey normality for the time of the year. There was a chance the fete would be held in dry weather if not in sun.
Sally is well-written as the murder victim, and I found myself wondering how people might have reacted to her character back in the pre-sexual revolution sixties when this was first written. In some early blurbs, she’s called “sly”, but reading with 21st century eyes, she is written as a selfish but not particularly spiteful young woman. Sally accepts Mrs Maxie’s employment because she wants something better for herself than the mother-and-baby home, and she does the job well. She’s not slavishly, forelock-tuggingly grateful for the post, and she’s on the look out for something better – a better post, a husband who can support her and her son, whatever form that “something better” is. Sally is not a particularly pleasant person, but that doesn’t mean she deserves to be murdered, and I think that really comes through in the novel. Thinking that people on low incomes should be thankful to be employed at all, and not worry about working conditions or treatment by employers and colleagues, continues to be a feature of our society. Perhaps that’s why this manor house mystery felt so contemporary as I was reading it. Some of the characters who are most judgmental of Sally for being an unmarried mother are clearly sleeping around themselves – it’s not clear whether their disapproval is because she’s working class, or because she got pregnant, but either way the hypocrisy is indicated by James without her particularly making a meal over it.
As for the mystery itself, I thought that struck exactly the right balance between being challenging and being plausible. Although I did guess right fairly early on, the novel kept twisting and turning the whole way through, suspicion being thrown on first one person and then another, and by the time I got to the end of the book I was on completely the wrong track. James plays fair, though – I think that everything I needed to solve the murder was probably in the book, but the clues were carefully obfuscated throughout. I also really enjoyed Adam Dalgleish – so often, detectives in murder mysteries (especially recurring police detectives) are dull clue-interpreting machines. The focus isn’t on Dalgleish here, but I can see that over the many novels in which he features, he could develop to be a really interesting character.
I enjoyed this very much, and, if this is what James’ debut outing is like, I’m really looking forward to seeing how her writing developed over the many decades where she was writing. I read this in snatches this week – it’s a very hectic time at work at the moment – and it was just perfect for something to engage my brain without overtaxing it. Very highly recommended!
*To be fair, if I were a wildly successful 91-year-old crime writer and baroness, I would probably also decide to publish my weird Agatha Christie/Jane Austen crossover fanfiction and let the world deal with it.