Can P.D. James be getting better with each book she writes? The answer, based on her new novel "Death in Holy Orders" (Knopf, 415 pages, $25), is "yes."
In her books, the corpse usually looks strikingly unusual, creating a visual scene that seems to jump off the page. But in this book, the body of Archdeacon Matthew Crampton is found in an Anglican church, lying under a vandalized painting titled "Doom" and with candlesticks placed like something from "Tosca." This scene is vivid, certainly, but here it somehow seems more an integral part of the story than a set piece.
As in most of James' mysteries, this isn't the only murder. While some of the murders in other books have seemed unnecessary to the plot, those in this book seem logical. The path to the murderer is long, twisting and fascinating. Although this is a complicated book -- perhaps James' most complicated -- it's not hard to follow.
The setting is a fictional seaside theological college of the Church of England. The book discusses current differences of opinion about how candidates for the Anglican priesthood should be trained and in what direction the Church of England should be going. Sound boring? It isn't, in the hands a writer of James' caliber.
James also delves into personalities and relationships. For instance, there's a self-centered young woman, and her less confident half-brother who works at the college and loves keeping pigs. (One of the clergymen thanked in an author's note told James about raising pigs, not about theology.)
Some fairly long scenic passages, including the description of the college's horse chestnut tree "showing its autumnal decrepitude," cause the reader to pause, reread and enjoy.
Again, James' detective is Adam Dalgliesh. In this book, at last, he lets crumble the barricades he has built around his heart and begins to fall in love. Further good news is that this probably won't be our last glimpse of Dalgliesh. In New York for a lecture promoting this book, James said she is thinking about his next case.
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