Cover Her Face by P.D. James

August 18, 2022 at 4:25 pm (Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here is a novel written in 1962 that reads as if it were written in 1862. You would think that the diction would call attention to itself in an exasperating way. It might. in fact, do that for some contemporary readers.

Not for me, though. I raced through the novel as though it were an up to the minute thriller. Although I’ve read it before – some years ago- I did not remember who the perpetrator was. And I could hardly wait to find out!

I can readily understand a certain impatience being evoked by James’s extremely measured prose style:

There was the sound of slow, careful footsteps and then a knock on the door. It was Martha with the nightly hot drinks. Back in his childhood old Nannie had decided that a hot milk drink last thing at night would help to banish the terrifying and inexplicable nightmares from which, for a brief period, he and Deborah had suffered.

The “he” in this passage is Stephen Maxie, heir to the Martingale estate and surgeon in training at a London hospital. Deborah is his sister, a young widow who also lives at Martingale and has no discernible occupation. Another young woman who frequently turns up at Martingale is Catherine Bowers. She does have a vocation – she’s a nurse – but her true aim in life is to get Stephen Maxie to marry her. Deborah, meanwhile, is spending apathetic time with a smart Londoner names Felix Hearne.

As I was typing in the quoted passage above, I was reminded of the extent to which the residents of wealthy country domains were routinely cosseted by their servants. In fact, Martha fusses over Stephen and Deborah just as she must have done when they were children.

I found something curiously bloodless about these characters. They came perilously close to being caricatures. And yet….

Into this attenuated existence is launched a detonator names Sally Jupp. She is everything the other female characters are not – headstrong, willful and devious. She is also an unmarried mother, and if that isn’t scandalous enough, she refuses to identify her child’s father.

Sally had been living at a home for unwed mothers. It was thought that installing her as a servant in the Maxie establishment would be an advantageous placement. We’re meant to see that by accepting her into their household despite her fallen state, the Maxies are behaving in a magnanimous manner.

At one point, Martha is questioned by Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh concerning Sally Jupp’s present employment Martingale, to wit: Had Mrs Maxie ever before engaged the services of ‘an unmarried mother?’

Martha offers this spirited riposte:

“It would never have been thought of in the old days. All our girls came with excellent references.”

Well. In a house full of entitled denizens of the upper class, Martha Bultitaft, maid of all work, may be the most rigidly class conscious of them all.

Right from the start, Sally Jupp is a burr under the saddle of the Maxie family’s aristocratic hauteur. It’s pretty obvious that her presence at Martingale will precipitate some sort of crisis.

And so it proves.

One of the many things I love about P.D. James’s writing is her frequent references to classic literature. Indeed, this novel’s title is taken from a line in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi:

‘Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.’ (The words cover her face are spoken by an appalled Stephen Maxie.)

[There is an interesting story about the choice of title for this novel. It involves Agatha Christie. See the Wikipedia entry for Sleeping Murder and scroll down to ‘Title changes.’]

I have kept very few texts from my college days, but I was able to unearth a 1959 Folger Library edition of The Duchess of Malfi. Here it is, expertly scanned by the resident IT wizard, aka my husband:

Later, Felix Hearne quotes from The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe:

‘But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.’

[Fans of the Inspector Morse books and TV series will recall the title The Wench Is Dead. In that episode, Morse, confined to a hospital bed, struggles to solve a murder committed in the environs of Oxford in the nineteenth century. It’s a set-up that calls to mind – deliberately, one assumes – Josephine Tey’s classic novel, The Daughter of Time.]

And what of the first appearance on the scene of DCI Adam Dalgliesh? In my view, his is a singularly low key debut. Not much in the way of a distinct personality emerges in the pages of this novel. We do learn two important things about him: First, as Felix Hearne exclaims, he is “A cultured cop!” (Hearne adds that he thought such beings only appeared in ‘detective novels.’ This comment is elicited when Dalgliesh correctly identifies a painting by George Stubbs on display at Martingale.) As the Dalgliesh series unfolds, readers gain further insight into the deeply discerning mind of Adam Dalgliesh.

Secondly, there’s an intensely personal disclosure concerning Dalgliesh’s private life. He rehearses it in his own mind, in response to one of Mrs. Maxie’s imperious declarations regarding her son Stephen:

‘I have no son. My own child and his mother died three hours after he was born.’

A shocking revelation, but one that cannot – must not – be uttered aloud.

In his classic text Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes of (and quotes) P.D. James:

At first she regarded detective fiction only as a useful apprenticeship for writing novels, but “after I had done three or four [detective] novels, I realized that in fact the restriction…could almost help by imposing a discipline, and that you could be a serious novelist within it.”

And of course, she went on to prove her thesis, many times over.

It has been a pleasure to revisit the work of this exceptional author. Thank you, Hilda, for making this choice for the Usual Suspects discussion group.

The Baroness James of Holland Park OBE, FRSA, FRSL 1920-2014

I have always loved the melancholy theme music, composed by Richard Harvey, that accompanies the Adam Dalgliesh TV series:

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