Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Murder Room (audio book) by P.D. James, read by Charles Keating

I had never read or listened to anything by P.D. James before listening to this. I had no idea, at the time, that this was the 12th book in James' Adam Dalgliesh series.

Synopsis:

The Dupayne is a tiny museum dedicated to the interwar years, with an entire room, dubbed the "Murder Room," devoted to the murders that occurred during that time. The future of the Dupayne depends upon all of its trustees signing a new lease. Two of the three trustees want the Dupayne to continue to exist and are perfectly happy to sign the lease. However, the third trustee refuses to sign. If the others can't convince him to change his mind, the museum will have to close.

Then that third trustee is found murdered, burned alive in his car. The murder appears to have been committed by someone copying one of the murders showcased in the Murder Room. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team are brought in to investigate. They slowly tease apart the complicated relationships and secrets of the victim and anyone who had anything to do with him. Then another copycat murder occurs.

Review:

I realized as I was listening to this that it's been a long time since I last read or listened to a murder mystery where the murder didn't occur early on in the book. The Murder Room required a bit of patience on my part – rather than killing someone off right away, as I expected, James first laid out the cast of characters and their relationships with each other and the museum. It was interesting, but I found myself wishing I were reading the book, rather than listening to it, because I had a hard time remembering who all the characters were and which scenes they had been featured in. Things got easier to follow after the first murder, however.

Although I did find myself getting a tad impatient for someone to be murdered, I found all the characters and their relationships fascinating. The museum was an insular little world, and the people involved in it all had private lives and secrets underneath the public personas they showed their coworkers and family members. I liked speculating over which bit of information would turn out to play a vital part in the murder.

Dalgliesh and his team had their own private lives and personal issues – those who are familiar with the series might already be aware of many of the character relationships but, as a newbie, I enjoyed figuring things out as I went along. For instance, there was a subplot involving Dalgliesh and his girlfriend. In an effort to keep a certain part of himself private, even from her, Dalgliesh inadvertently made his girlfriend feel as though she perhaps wasn't as important to him as his work and didn't understand him as well as Kate, one of the members of his team. I wondered whether Dalgliesh would be able to repair his relationship, whether his girlfriend would leave him, whether she'd be better off if she left him.

Long-time readers of this series may feel differently, but I didn't particularly want things to turn out in such a way that a future relationship with Kate might be a possibility. With Kate's class insecurities, I think she would have eventually come to resent Dalgliesh if they had become a couple. Plus, there was the whole “we're colleagues” thing to consider. I don't know that Dalgliesh's girlfriend would be any happier with him, though. Presumably, she realizes he's not going to stop immersing himself in his work.

The mystery itself was very interesting. There were lots of people with motives for the murders, and it seemed like more secrets kept getting uncovered every few chapters. The real murderer was someone I didn't suspect at all...which was part of the problem. The murderer's reason for killing the first person was dealt with very briefly, in comparison with all of the character information covered up to that point. It kind of felt like James had gotten really into creating vivid, well-rounded characters, only to suddenly remember that someone had to be the murderer, so she pulled one out of a hat and slapped a motive on that person.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I found Dalgliesh's relationship issues to be a little bit stressful to read about (the transportation woes near the end of the book were absolute agony for me), and I had a few difficulties keeping track of all the story and character details at first, but, otherwise, this made for great work-time listening. Charles Keating was a good reader, and there was something almost comforting about his voice. I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who likes fast-paced, action-packed mysteries, but those who like really excellent characterization may want to try this. Based on the reader reviews I've read, it sounds like that's usual for James, so I might try another book in this series sometime.

Read-alikes:
  • Whose Body? (book) by Dorothy L. Sayers - The first book in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series. This might appeal to those who'd like another mystery starring a similar, highly intelligent main character. I haven't read anything by Sayers yet, but I've read that her writing style is similar to James'. As primarily a romance reader, I would probably be more inclined to start with Strong Poison, which introduces Harriet Vane, the woman Wimsey will eventually marry.
  • A Great Deliverance (book) by Elizabeth George - The first book in George's Inspector Lynley series. Another mystery starring a reserved and introspective English detective. Those who liked Kate's class issues may like the setup in this book. Aristocratic inspector Thomas Lynley is partnered with working-class Sergeant Barbara Havers, and the two have to work through their personal and class differences.
  • From Doon With Death (book) by Ruth Rendell - The first book in Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford series. This might appeal to those who'd like another mystery with a complex storyline in which characters' secrets are unraveled.
  • The Various Haunts of Men (book) by Susan Hill - If you liked the psychological aspects of The Murder Room, you might want to try this, the first book in Hill's Simon Serrailer mystery series. Police detective Freya Graffham has recently transferred to the small town of Lafferton and finds herself unable to let go of what appears to be a routine missing persons case.
  • Gallows View (book) by Peter Robinson - This is the first book in Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks series. This might appeal to those looking for another mystery with well-drawn characters with complicated relationship issues.

2 comments:

  1. I've had a similar experience with several authors of jumping right into a later book in a series sort of accidentally. I always wonder if longtime readers of the series experience the book completely differently than I do, as a result of their history with the characters. That's the prime reason that I do read several long series of mysteries - it's almost like one long story of watching the main characters change as they age and get more experience on the job. Dalgliesh is one of the ones I do try to keep up with but I'm several books behind now. P.D. James has never been one of my favorites except for the Dalgliesh series.

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  2. "I always wonder if longtime readers of the series experience the book completely differently than I do, as a result of their history with the characters."

    I think they probably do. I've seen comments from people who have started with the later books in, say, J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas series, and some of the things Roarke, her husband, does doesn't go over well. Long-time readers have had a chance to see the relationship dynamics play out, so his actions have a deeper context, I think.

    I prefer to start with the first book of long series, because I want all the context, not just whatever happens to appear in an individual later book. Unfortunately, sometimes things don't work out that way. This time around, it was due to the selection of audio books. I think this is the only one in the series that my library owns in audio book form.

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