Cover Her Face

"A house full of people all disliking each other is bound to be explosive."

Martingale is an estate of tradition. Traditions the Maxie family is desperately and barely managing to maintain. But when the Maxies take in a local single mother, Sally Jupp, as a maid in order to save money compared to a more respectable domestic servant, she single-handedly shatters the status quo, turning each member of the household into either an ardent supporter or harsh critic. As such it shouldn't be much of a surprise—at least to the reader—when Sally is found dead, strangled in her bed, the door to her room bolted from the inside.

Thankfully, the window was unlocked, and the pipe outside it showed signs of someone climbing down it. We wouldn't want one of those mysteries, now would we.

Cover Her Face is the debut novel of the legendary writer P. D. James. (Naturally, I had never heard of her before this.) It is a novel of extremes, with nearly every element being extremely good or extremely bad. It all balances it out into a relatively enjoyable story with noticeable flaws. I didn't find Cover Her Face particularly memorable, but if nothing else it's a decent starting point for a career writing crime fiction.

James's greatest strength is, without a doubt, her writing. (Which is a good strength to have if you're a writer.) Her prose is clear, witty and entertaining. Strong characters naturally flow from her skilled writing. They're complex, but easy to follow thanks to their clearly delineated roles and personalities. James does a fantastic job expressing the characters' natural responses to the events they confront as they clashes with the expectations of people of their class, wonderfully distilling out the human element in a genre that so often lacks it.

The main detective, Adam Dangliesh, however, is bland. Outside of a short passage that tells us his backstory, he has no particularly noteworthy character traits beyond his role as the detective and a police investigator. In a detective story, there's nothing wrong with a mild detective, as it lets you focus on the mystery and investigation, but the issue here is that the boring detective is compounded by extraordinarily boring plotting. Dangliesh questions some witnesses, then some witnesses question other witnesses, then Dangliesh questions other witnesses. then witnesses question other witnesses, then we go back to Danglish questioning witnesses... After the discovery of the corpse and initial investigation, nothing actually happens until the end of the penultimate chapter, where it's simply too little too late. And what does happen doesn't even get the proper attention it deserves. While the great writing helps keep things from being a total drag, doing nothing but questioning witness after witness still gets tiring.

The mystery itself can be bifurcated into two components: the question of what happened the night of Sally's murder, and the truth behind the girl known as Sally Jupp.

The question of Sally's murder is a competently constructed puzzle, but runs into problems with its cluing. The issue can be illustrated with the structure of the deduction of the solution: with fair but subtle clues, it is deduced that Character A was lying. With the previously unclued details of Character A's true testimony, it is deduced that Character B was lying. And finally, with the unclued details of Character B's real story, the killer, Character C, is revealed. It is an elegant logic domino effect, and completely unfair. These unclued details in Character A and B's testimonies are arbitrary, in the sense that they could have been changed, leading to a different killer, without displacing any other element of the book. On top of that, the character that commits most of the tricky business is Character B, who barely had any sort of personal stake in the affair. In addition to being unfair, the solution felt underwhelming because the greatest obstacles had been placed by someone besides the murderer who did not really have a compelling reason to go to the lengths that they did.

And yet I was still satisfied by the resolution, thanks to the mystery of Sally Jupp. While she appeared to merely be a local unwed mother, there was much more going on in her head of fiery red hair—or was there? Dangliesh's investigation goes as deeply into Sally Jupp's character as it does into the events that led to her murder, painting a detailed picture of a complicated young woman. Yet not until the end does it become clear whether people were seeing something in Sally that wasn't there, she was simply putting on airs, or if she truly had something that gave her power over others. The explanation of Sally's character comports so perfectly with what we see and hear of Sally over the course of the book, it feels like a satisfying resolution all unto itself. I know that on this blog I drone on about my preference for having "the" solution rather than "a" solution, and that this sort of psychological mystery is the epitome of a mystery with "a" solution, but I think the fact that I nonetheless found it wholly satisfying is simply a testament to the strength of James's character writing.

P. D. James is a fantastic writer. But, while she put forth a good effort, she had some serious shortcomings as a crime novelist—in Cover Her Face, at least. While I don't think I would recommend this book unless you're already a die-hard P. D. James fan, I think she has potential and will definitely try out another one of her books.

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