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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Murder Room


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To purchase The Murder Room

Title: The Murder Room
Author: P.D.James
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 415 pages
Availability: The Murder Room - US
The Murder Room - UK
The Murder Room - Canada
The Murder Room - India
La Salle des meurtres - France
Im Saal der Mörder - Deutschland
La stanza dei delitti - Italia
La sala del crimen - España
  • An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery
  • The Murder Room was made into a TV-serial in 2004, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and starring Martin Shaw as Adam Dalgliesh

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid writing, good read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard . 30/6/2003 T.J. Binyon
The Guardian . 5/7/2003 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 5/7/2003 Andrew Taylor
The NY Times . 2/12/2003 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/12/2003 Patricia T. O'Connor
The Observer A 29/6/2003 Peter Guttridge
The Spectator . 21/6/2003 Harriet Waugh
The Telegraph B+ 2/7/2003 Giles Waterfield
The Telegraph . 2/7/2003 Helen Brown
The Times . 25/6/2003 Marcel Berlins
TLS . 11/7/2003 Heather O'Donoghue
The Village Voice . 15/12/2003 Alexis Soloski
The Washington Post . 7/12/2003 Laura Lippman

  Review Consensus:

  Don't think it's exceptional, but most are impressed by aspects of it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though The Murder Room has the form of a classical detective story, the actual process of detection is treated somewhat perfunctorily, its unimportance exemplified by the fact that the obligatory final explanation of the crime is given not by Dalgliesh, but by the wholly unimportant figure of the Home Secretary. The author's attention is fixed, rather, on buildings and people." - T.J. Binyon, Evening Standard

  • "This reader has just emerged from a long stretch of reading contemporary American crime fiction and, when reading James, you do find yourself nostalgic for crack cocaine, anal sex and people calling each other "mutha". Yet, beneath its polite surface, The Murder Room proves to be a surprisingly modern book, or at least one that is arguing with modernity. (...) But James's eye for architecture and nature is rare in most genres of the novel now, and this skill for physical description -- along with her psychological acuity -- ensures that a book about killings among the exhibits is never entirely a museum piece." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "The plot purrs along like a well-designed and well-maintained engine. James writes with rare authority about the civil service, the police and the justice system. She also does an exceptionally good corpse (.....) The artificiality of the form is less important than the quality of the writing. What linger in the mind are James's sharply individual characters, most living rigorously ordered lives (a quality James values) but with a flaw in the pattern." - Andrew Taylor, The Independent

  • "(S)ure-handed but pokier than the preceding Dalgliesh mystery, Death in Holy Orders" - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "James writes with such ease and juggles her plots and characters with such control that none of this gets out of hand. (...) Alas, James's efforts to inject suspense into Dagliesh's romantic life are less effective." - Patricia T. O'Connor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "By this stage in the series, James presumably doesn't think she needs to say much about his character. Or maybe she's bored with him. Whichever it is, the result is that, for the most part, Dalgleish is pretty much a cipher. (...) Her formidable talents are fully in evidence here but she's in no hurry to get started. We're more than 100 pages in before any crime occurs. Once she does begin, though, she doesn't relent until the genuinely chilling climax. Patrician, eccentric, but still a delight." - Peter Guttridge, The Observer

  • "The Murder Room reads like vintage P. D. James. (...) This one is a much more classic affair, even to the introduction of a second, completely unexpected murder, just at the point when you have had enough of the first." - Harriet Waugh, The Spectator

  • "P. D. James has a great deal of fun evoking the details of this worthy but, as it turns out, dangerous establishment. The museum becomes one of the most memorable characters in the book. (...) For admirers of the mistress of crime The Murder Room may be a slight disappointment. In terms of narrative, this is not vintage James." - Giles Waterfield, The Telegraph

  • "James feigns less interest in the horrors she has dreamed up than in edifying readers with wider social commentary: is the NHS doing enough for the mentally ill and the homeless ? Isn't London transport dreadful ? Isn't the BBC going downhill ? She should get herself a column. The victims and suspects are all unbelievably detached from the nightmare inflicted on them - even the killer, when caught, turns out to have rather mundane motives and accepts capture with indifference." - Helen Brown, The Telegraph

  • "In The Murder Room she has returned to the small and the traditional. This is an old-fashioned whodunnit, with a satisfyingly narrow range of suspects and motives. It raises no important issues -except the constant one: what makes ordinary people commit murder ? (...) The Murder Room is a quiet, elegant, pensive work." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "P. D. James's latest novel, The Murder Room, is the most elaborately self-referential I have ever come across. With perfect aplomb, the novel sets a preposterous series of murders in a private museum (.....) This is crime writing for the connoisseur, not novelty for the jaded palate." - Heather O'Donoghue, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At the considerable age of 83, James still suffers from a sort of prudery -- the book concludes with the promise of un mariage blanc -- but her imagination appears quite uninhibited." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice

  • "The Murder Room, has the stately, unhurried quality of being written by a woman confident of her station in life and literature." - Laura Lippman, The Washington Post

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:

       The Murder Room takes its title from an exhibit-room in the Dupayne Museum, a small, private museum, "dedicated to the inter-war years, 1919 through 1938". There are paintings from the period, and a good library, while the Murder Room is a bit more sensational, "dedicated entirely to the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and '30s".
       The Dupayne Museum stands at a crossroads: the lease is up, and the signature of all three trustees is needed on the renewal for the museum to remain open. The trustees are the three children of the founder, Marcus, Caroline, and Neville Dupayne, and while newly retired Marcus and Caroline, who lives on the premises, both are particularly eager to have things remain as they are, psychiatrist Neville intends to stand in their way. Unsurprisingly, there is convenient death (by murder) before the deadline.
       The crime wouldn't normally be assigned to Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his Special Investigation Squad, but the powers that be have their reasons for calling in the big guns. Ostensibly the reason is because someone at the museum -- James Calder-Hale (who, also has his reasons for desperately wanting the museum to remain open) -- has some dealings with MI5, though, of course, there may be other reasons as well .....
       P.D.James builds the story up slowly. Divided into four books, the first -- taking up more than a quarter of the novel -- merely introduces character after character, and sets up what seems to be the basic conflict (will the museum survive or not ?). James is at her best here, effortlessly weaving together the stories of the those affiliated with the museum and their many small, private concerns.
       The table of contents already warns that remaining three books are titled: The First Victim, The Second Victim, and The Third Victim. To James' credit, only the first is foreseeable and the next two come as decent surprises. The book doesn't quite become pedestrian, but it is procedural: the investigators interview the witnesses, do what needs be done. There are all sorts of complications, of course, and a few nice twists to it. Still: it's not the most inspired crime-plot, and there are moments when it seems James is just going through the motions (expertly, for the most part, admittedly, but without that extra bit that makes her best books so remarkable).
       Adam Dalgliesh -- with trusty sidekicks Detective Inspectors Kate Miskin and Piers Tarrant -- has figured in numerous P.D.James books. The respected poet and solitary figure is, as usual, in complete control of matters. An added twist here -- of sorts -- is his romantic interest. Emma Lavenham, a Lecturer in English Literature at Cambridge, previously encountered in Death in Holy Orders, looks to be the gal for him -- if they can ever manage to find time for each other. Their relationship has also reached a crossroads: Emma wants commitment, and Dalgliesh wants to commit -- but there are these pesky murders that keep interfering with him declaring his true love. This secondary story -- will they or won't they get together ? -- also runs through the book -- but only very, very far in the background. Dalgliesh mulls things over on occasion, but for the most part Emma remains very much in the distance (though James does tie these loose ends up at the end of the novel). It's a shame: a bit more of this could have worked well; as is, it feels almost tacked on.
       The Murder Room offers everything one could want from a murder mystery. There's a variety of crimes, lots of motives and suspects, a rich cast of characters. The book reads effortlessly, but it's not merely simple, light reading: there's depth to almost all the characters, and an effort to peer deeper into many of these souls. It can get distracting -- there are so many characters, and some are only bluffs, suspicious but ultimately irrelevant -- but overall it's a pleasing approach. James' meditations -- on trying to hold onto (or get rid of) the past, on murder in different times, on contemporary romance and sex -- aren't always entirely convincing, but they're better than what most writers serve up in their books.
       Certainly recommended as casual reading matter.

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The Murder Room: Reviews: The Murder Room - 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 lived 1920 to 2014. She has written numerous acclaimed mysteries.

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© 2003-2014 the complete review

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