This is the first of the Adam Dalgliesh crime novels written by PD James. It was originally published in 1962 by Faber and Faber.
Set in Bembo, printed on Abbey Wove paper at Vicenza, Italy. Bound in cloth with a design by the illustrator. 224 pages with 7 colour illustrations.
This is a murder mystery set in the 1950s in a rural village outside London. I will be going through the entire plot so read no further if you intend to read the book and be kept in suspense!
Sally, an unmarried mother, is given a position as a live in domestic servant at Martingale, the home of the Maxie family. The head of the family is Simon Maxie who is bedridden and be nursed by his wife Eleanor and Martha, the housekeeper. Simon and Eleanor’s widowed daughter Deborah also lives there, and their son, Stephen a trainee surgeon visits often from London. A family friend, Catherine Bowers, is a frequent visitor, and imagines herself as becoming married to Stephen.
The annual church fete brings Stephen, Catherine and Felix, a friend of Deborah, together at the family home for the weekend.
While the family is having the the evening meal after the fete, Sally announces that Stephen has asked her to marry him. Eleanor, Catherine and Deborah are aghast.
The next morning Martha cannot get any response from Sally, late for domestic duties, when she knocks on her locked door. Eventually Stephen and Felix get into the room by fetching and climbing a ladder. Sally is discovered dead in bed with evidence that she has been strangled.
Naturally the police are called and Adam Dalgleish comes from London to lead the investigation. The remainder of the book takes us through statements of the various characters, Sally’s background, and puts us on a few false trails.
It turns out that Sally was an orphan and was brought up by her uncle and aunt. Sally was intelligent but also a manipulative schemeer. She had secretly married prior to coming to Martingale. Her husband was working in Venezuela and they corresponded using Derek Pullen,one of the young men of the village, as an intermediary. She had asked her estranged uncle for money and he had come to meet her on the day of the fete. He agreed to bring her the money that night. Late that night he entered the house. He went into her room and found her dead in bed. Hearing footsteps in the corridor outside he bolted the door, and made his exit through the window, but injuried himself climbing down a drainpipe. He made his way home, but altered the clocks so his wife thought that he had returned around midnight rather than two hours later.
Martha had been secretly lacing Sally’s evening hot drink with sedatives to cause her to be late to arise in the morning, hoping that this would get her dismissed for tardiness. When she learnt that Sally had been found dead she feared that she had killed her and hid the bottle of sedatives which the Police later found.
During the final meeting with Dalgleish it becomes apparent that each of the characters has suspected each other in some sense, but as the meeting goes on, each are eliminated as the murderer. That is until Eleanor states that she is the one who strangled Sally. She did this in a fit of rage when she went to talk to Sally in her room the night of the murder. Sally had taunted her and told her that she was expecting Stephen’s baby. She had decided to not admit her guilt until her husband had died as she had promised him that she would look after him until that time. His death released her from that bond.
Here’s another plot summary. It’s always a little bit interesting to compare them.
This is PD James first novel, and introduces Adam Dalgleish to her readers. Although it is about the crime and its solution, it’s also about trust and suspicion between close friends and family.
PD James (born 1920) is a prolific writer, best known for the Dalgleish crime novels. She has had a long writing career, and remains active. This is a recent interview which I found interesting.
The Illustrator and Illustrations
Jonathan Buton illustrated this book and the Douglas Adams’ books for the Folio Society. This is his website and here are the illustrations for the text and a blog about the background to the illustrations.
I do like the illustrations. Burton has read and understood the text and picked out some key moments. There is the sly impertinent look from Sally to Alice Liddel at the dinner with which the novel begins, the scene at the church fete where Sally wears an identical dress to Deborah, the overhead view of the body and the investigators (a wonderful perspective), then a couple of illustrations linking the gloved hand to Sally’s uncle, Mr Proctor..a visual clue that adds to the text, an illustration with Sally and the cup of cocoa and then the final image where Dalgliesh revels the process of his investigation.
When thinking through the plot I would have liked to see an illustration of the moment when Sally tells the guests at the dinner table that Stephen has asked her to marry him, and maybe one at the graveside as Sally is buried with Mrs Proctor in the backgound and the group dynamics of the principal characters gathered together.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde will definitely be next, and then The Earliest Chemical Industry will finish off the 1948 books. Cover Her Face was published in 1962, and by the end of that year, since inception, the Folio Society had published around 175 books. By now there are well over 1600 books. It would be an impossible task to cover them all. I will be lucky to realise my aim, which was to obtain and read the first 100.