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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Death in Holy Orders

by
P.D.James


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Death in Holy Orders



Title: Death in Holy Orders
Author: P.D.James
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 415 pages
Availability: Death in Holy Orders - US
Death in Holy Orders - UK
Death in Holy Orders - Canada
Meurtres en soutane - France
Tod an heiliger Stätte - Deutschland
  • An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery

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Our Assessment:

A- : entertaining mystery, a pleasure to read

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard B 19/2/2001 T.J. Binyon
FAZ . 31/1/2002 Thomas David
The Guardian A 10/3/2001 Roy Hattersley
The Independent A 23/2/2001 Andrew Taylor
The LA Times . 15/4/2001 Eugen Weber
New Statesman . 5/3/2001 Jessica Mann
The New Yorker . 14/5/2001 .
The NY Times . 16/4/2001 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 29/4/2001 Sarah Ferrell
The Observer A+ 4/3/2001 Nicola Upson
The Spectator A+ 17/2/2001 Charlotte Joll
The Times . 3/3/2001 Marcel Berlins
TLS C 2/3/2001 Heather O'Donoghue
Wall Street Journal . 10/4/2001 Tom Nolan

Review notes: Roy Hattersley tells us "Dalgliesh, as a boy, spent a summer at the college", even though P.D.James has Dalgliesh say: "I stayed there as a boy for three summers." Janet Maslin writes about "the will of Clara Arbuthnot, who left the building to the church", when in fact Clara is a more recent Arbuthnot -- the lesbian who dumped her illegitimate son on the doorstep of St. Anselm's as an infant; it was Agnes Arbuthnot who founded the college and penned the confounding will.

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very enthusiastic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though one can enjoy the author's sharp-eyed portrayal of domestic interiors, which goes hand in hand with an acute dissection of character and personality, and cannot but appreciate the uninhibited manner in which she sets about her pet aversions -- the two most prominent are the modernisation of the Church of England and the Macpherson Report -- the book is far less satisfying as a detective story." - T.J. Binyon, Evening Standard

  • "Die große Kunst der P.D.James ist jene der Differenzierung: Der naive Glaube an die Allmacht des Detektivs, die falsche Hoffnung auf die Wiederherstellung der durch Mord zerrütteten Ordnung, ist das erste, was dieser Kunst zum Opfer fällt." - Thomas David, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A thriller it is not, nor is Death in Holy Orders intended to justify that description. It proceeds at a pace appropriate to the speed of life at St Anselm's (.....) But P.D. James is able to meander with a sense of urgency. As a result, the absence of a new sensation in every chapter of her latest murder mystery increases the suspense rather than reduces the tension." - Roy Hattersley, The Guardian

  • "In P.D. James's skilled hands, the artificiality of the form has the paradoxical effect of highlighting the reality of what it deals with. (...) Many of her characters have the satisfying ability to lift themselves off the page and into the reader's mind. Their range, incidentally, is remarkable, refuting the accusation that James restricts herself to the middle classes and their morality. On the contrary, she moves convincingly across the barriers of age and social status." - Andrew Taylor, The Independent

  • "(T)he muted mayhem, inquiries, interrogations and general back-and- forthings progress in mannered fashion. It's no less than one would expect from the pensive, saturnine Dalgliesh or from the story's setting in a closed clerical community as insular as the classic country house where gentlemanly corpses crop up in libraries around teatime. Here, victims turn up in or near the church; and, as suspects are gradually winnowed, the killer will be found to be almost as rational as his captor." - Eugen Weber, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The end result is a sombre, serious novel about guilt, remorse, responsibility and death. (...) She believes that, just as the strict sonnet form can contain great poetry, a traditional detective novel can bear the weight of a serious moral theme. I think so, too, and found this one absorbing and provocative. But it's not light entertainment." - Jessica Mann, New Statesman

  • "It's a pleasure to read James at the top of her form, as she often is here (...) but this time around the dénouement lacks the force majeure that readers have come to expect." - The New Yorker

  • "Death in Holy Orders, a very secular page-turner despite its title and setting, sustains a fine balance between Baroness James's descriptive powers, which summon St. Anselm's in all its brooding and mayhem-ready splendor, and the reader's eagerness for the deductive part of the story to move along." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Even for P.D.James, the plot is complicated, and purists might complain that its resolution depends on the most Dickensian of coincidences. Most of the rest of us will marvel that a story of such baroque intricacy can be resolved in any way at all, and will be dazzled by the way James keeps all her characters moving with only deliberate collisions." - Sarah Ferrell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) thoughtful, beautifully-written book which is far more complex than the sum of its parts. (...) Moreover, in St Anselm's -- isolated and exposed to the elements -- she has created a perfect fusion of theme and setting: the physical erosion of its bricks and mortar are matched, blow for blow, by the more symbolic demise of an old style of faith and the emergence of a twenty-first century creed that has no place for mystery or for art, no desire for heaven and no fear of hell." - Nicola Upson, The Observer

  • "Death in Holy Orders is the most satisfactory kind of conventional detective story. (...) What makes this book so enjoyable is the coherence of its setting and its subject matter. (...) One of the things that sets P. D. James apart from other writers in this genre is the intellectual assurance of her work. This is manifest in her use of language -- she writes beautifully -- but also in the light touch with which she displays her learning." - Charlotte Joll, The Spectator

  • "James, as she always does, manages to invest even a simple mystery novel with a depth and intelligence that few in her trade can match." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Both the form and the setting of Death in Holy Orders are therefore extraordinarily retrogressive, and this is reinforced by the narrative's fixed backward gaze. (...) There is no doubt that Death in Holy Orders demonstrates impressive mastery over the complex plotting vital to this genre. (...) But in the end, the fate of neither St Anselm's nor its residents manages to engage the reader. Partly it is the staginess of the religious setting, all bells, books and candlesticks. In this lavishly atmospheric context, poor Adam Dalgliesh is even more of a tailor's dummy than usual." - Heather O'Donoghue, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The author makes the most of this moody milieu, at once evoking and transcending the trappings and traditions of a "Golden Age" detective-fiction puzzle. (...) Death in Holy Orders lacks the force and weight of A Kind of Justice, its most recent predecessor in the Dalgliesh saga; but it has a clearer resolution than the earlier book." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Death in Holy Orders P.D.James writes with remarkable assurance: she knows what she is doing, and she knows how to go about it. One encounters this less often nowadays than one might expect, and it is mightily refreshing. (Many authors certainly write with confidence, but it is generally misplaced confidence; not so with James.)
       Death in Holy Orders is told in four parts, though the mystery is, in fact, resolved in three-act fashion, the fourth part being merely a very brief postscript. The setting is St. Anselm's, an elite theological college at an isolated location on the coast of Suffolk. Set atop the cliffs that are crumbling into the sea the college seems doomed. It is not only nature that undermines the College: the Church is apparently looking to close it down, and then events at the college itself reinforce the sense of inevitability of this.
       There are deaths, of course. The first is that of Ronald Treeves, a student at the college -- and the adopted son of wealthy industrialist Sir Alfred Treeves. He dies in horrible fashion, buried alive in sand that collapsed on top of him (despite there being many signs warning of precisely such dangers). It is ruled an accidental death, but the possibility of suicide -- and, of course, of murder -- can not be excluded.
       Sir Alfred Treeves is an influential man, and he wants Scotland Yard to look into the circumstances surrounding the death. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, who had spent three summers at St. Anselm's in his youth, offers to poke around.
       Dalgliesh is not the only unwanted guest who appears that weekend: among the others is the very Archdeacon (the position helpfully defined as "a kind of Rottweiler of the Church") who is pushing for the closure of the college, Reverend Crampton (who also caused one of the resident Fathers considerable grief years earlier), as well as a local police Inspector, Yarwood, who in turn caused the Archdeacon considerable grief years earlier (essentially accusing him of having murdered his first wife). Others present include only a few of the students, the Fathers, the resident help, a visiting lecturer, Emma Lavenham, and a researcher, Clive Stannard.
       Even before Dalgliesh arrives, a second death has occurred. It appears to have been a natural one, though in this case the reader already knows for certain that it was not.
       The atmosphere is not the happiest at the college. Tensions run quite high. The recent deaths don't help, but it is the possibly imminent closure of the college weighs most heavily. Among the issues of concern is what will happen to the college after its closing: the will of the founder, Miss Agnes Arbuthnot, anticipates the possibility, leaving the property to be divided between "any direct descendants of her father, provided such descendants were legitimate in English law and communicant members of the Church of England". There is, in fact, an Arbuthnot resident at St. Anselm's -- Raphael, a student there, and the last of the Arbuthnots -- but unfortunately he is a bastard child, left by his mother at St. Anselm's doorstep as an infant. Which means the resident priests apparently stand to inherit .....
       There is a considerable amount of money involved. There are articles of value here -- some marvelous pieces of art, as well as some silver. And then there is the mysterious Anselm papyrus .....
       There are also personal grudges galore. All of which makes for a nice and promising mix:

The college might stand in defiant symbolic isolation between the sea and the acres of unpopulated headland, but the life within its walls was intense, tightly controlled, claustrophobic. What emotions might not flourish in that hothouse atmosphere ?
       Sure enough soon enough there has been more murder most foul, as the Archdeacon gets his head bashed in.
       The first part of Death in Holy Orders, until the Archdeacon's death, is the strongest. James sets up the setting and the characters and the potential conflicts and tensions very well. There is expectation in the air, but there is no rush for events to unfold -- and it works very well that way.
       Mind, the rest of Death in Holy Orders is very good too, but once the Archdeacon has been killed the book becomes a police procedural. A very good one, but still one in which actions are done by the book, where an order is followed and the pieces slowly come together (though, of course, not before a few false trails have been followed).
       Nowhere in the first section does James seem merely to be going through the motions, but in the later ones she falters very occasionally, giving in to trite and unnecessary predictability in stray sentences and explanations:
The apparent suicide, the certified natural death, the brutal murder -- there was a cord which connected them. Its strength might be tenuous and its path convoluted, but when he traced it, it would lead him to the heart of the mystery.
       Still, the mystery unfolds in satisfactory manner, always a pleasure to read. The solutions -- and the various explanations of the other oddities and unusual behaviour and events -- are all quite well handled. The characters are well presented, and Dalgliesh as always a commanding figure.
       The conclusion -- the final, full explanation -- and the small ray of hope for Dalgliesh's personal life that are presented in the brief, final section seem almost a bit much -- though James does get away with it (just).
       On the whole: an excellent mystery. It is, ultimately, a mystery, not literature. But the first section, in particular, is very finely done, and all of it is a very good read. Certainly recommended.

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Links:

Death in Holy Orders: Reviews: Death in Holy Orders - the TV serial: P.D.James: Other books by P.D.James under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920. She has written numerous acclaimed mysteries.

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© 2001-2008 the complete review

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