Book review: Death of an Expert Witness

PD JamesWhat a great title. Ask most people to name a PD James novel, and this is probably it.

A gloriously convoluted plot surrounding a Fens village, a forensic science laboratory, and a tightly-knit community linked in ways the reader cannot forsee. The clues are there but each is so fleetingly mentioned, so parsimonious, and so intertwined, that you will forget each and discount its importance. When the senior biologist at Hoggatt’s Laboratory is found dead, New Scotland Yard is called in. Commander Adam Dalgliesh arrives with Detective Inspector John Massingham; it is not the easiest of working partnerships, another layer of grit added to the oyster.

PD James’ observations are at times heart-rending. Of a victim’s elderly father: “The old man sat there, staring straight ahead. His hands, with the long fingers like those of his son, but with their skin dry and stained as withered leavers, hung heavily between his knees, grotesquely large for the brittle wrists.”

The technical detail, at which James is always so reliable, is interleaved here with the writing style I associate with the later Dalgliesh books. On his way to interview a bereaved relative, Dalgliesh stands on high ground and looks towards Hoggatt’s Laboratory. “Under the turbulent painter’s sky, with its changing clusters of white, grey and purple cumulus clouds massing against the pale azure blue of the upper air, and the sunlight moving fitfully across the fields and flittering on roofs and windows, it looked like an isolated frontier outpost, but welcoming, prosperous and secure. Violent death might lurk eastwards in the dark fenlands, but surely not under these neat domestic roofs.” But regular crime readers know that is exactly where crime lurks.

Dalgliesh’s observations, about the process of life and death, the motivation of murder, the role of life of art, of religion, of poetry, are becoming denser in the transition which elevated PD James’ books from crime fiction to literary fiction. There is so much more in her books than murder. “Death, thought Dalgliesh, obliterates family resemblance as it does personality; there is no affinity between the living and the dead.”

Read my reviews of the previous five Dalgliesh mysteries:-
Cover Her Face #1
A Mind to Murder #2
Unnatural Causes #3
Shroud for a Nightingale #4
The Black Tower #5
‘Death of an Expert Witness’ by PD James, Adam Dalgliesh #6 [UK: Faber] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS by PD James #bookreview via @SandraDanby

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