P.D. James’ debut novel, “Cover Her Face,” is a literary autopsy of a sensational homicide that shook Martingale, a medieval manor house in the English village of Chadfleet.
It doesn’t begin with a murder.
But even before it’s committed, your muscles are tensed, the suspense, amped up in a steep gradient, from speculating about who the victim will be, to begin with, and then, the identity of the possible killer.
At a dinner, hosted by the Maxies, one of the guests notices a gleam of “amused contempt” in the eye of their newly hired parlor maid, the pretty, smart, and demure Sally Jupp.
The mood of anticipation is aggravated by this summing up of the social atmosphere by a would-be invitee:
A house full of people all disliking each other is bound to be explosive. Stephen dislikes me. He has never bothered to hide it. You dislike Catherine Bowers. She dislikes you and will probably extend that emotion to me. Martha and you dislike Sally Jupp and she, poor girl, probably loathes you all. And, that pathetic creature, Miss Liddell, will be there, and your mother dislikes her. It will be a perfect orgy of suppressed emotion.
It’s indeed, “suppressed emotion” that’s the primum mobile of everyone’s actions. It’s a fair guess the domestic help, who secretly mocks everyone, will give it a violent expression.
But the plot makes a surprise U-turn, when it’s she, who’s found dead behind a bolted door, a doped mug of cocoa in her room.
The incident is met by the household, more with muffled relief and less visible shock. Only earlier, after all, the girl had announced, rather sassily, to the family, her engagement to their son, Dr. Stephen Maxie, a rising young surgeon.
When the handsome, no-nonsense, and hard-nosed, homicide detective, Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, arrives at the scene, he has his work cut out for him, for there’s a surfeit of suspects, as everyone has an equal and compelling motive.
The mother, Mrs. Eleanor Maxie, detests her gall, though outwardly, is a figure of serenity and composure. The sister, the forthright Deborah Riscoe, openly hates her for having a child.
The reticent Catherine Bowers, a former lover, has reason to begrudge, for being jilted. Even the senior housekeeper, the elderly Mrs. Martha Baltitaft, is not exempt from this unanimous aversion of her.
The case proves to be a convoluted one, wrapped as it is in a diversity of red herrings, each of which takes the investigation in a different direction.
There’s an empty, rinsed out canister; shattered remains of glass animals; a bottle of sleeping pills, haphazardly pressed into the ground; murmurs of blackmail; a gloved hand.
Forensics determines it to be a crime of impulse, perpetrated by strong, bare hands, while another crucial piece of evidence gives it the appearance of premeditation.
At the heart of the mystery, however, “lay the complex personality of Sally Jupp.” “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, insecure,” and supremely secretive, she seemed, in the assessment of a former employer to make a “natural murderee.”
Anyone who relishes Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie ought not to miss out on P.D. James. Her style is elegant, old-fashioned, and classy.