Written by P.D. James
Simon & Schuster / Touchstone, 1990; 250 pages
First published 1962
In P.D. James's Cover Her Face, young housemaid and single mother Sally Jupp is found strangled in bed behind a bolted bedroom door, with her infant son asleep in his crib in the same room. Just the day before, her employer at Martingale manor house, Mrs. Eleanor Maxie had been in the middle of presiding over the annual St. Cedd's Church fete when she received the astonishing news that Sally had become engaged to marry Mrs. Maxie's son, physician Stephen Maxie. Family and friends, as well as those who had known Sally at St. Mary's Refuge for Girls were surprised and shocked, but was the surprising engagement enough to spur someone to murder? Both Martha, the family's longtime housekeeper, and Mrs. Maxie's daughter Deborah had reasons to dislike the girl. Or could the murder be related to something in Sally's past – something to do with her time at the refuge for unwed mothers, or her former employment at the Select Book Club in London?
Sally was lovely and headstrong, and had ambitions "above her station" that very well might have resulted in enemies. One by one, the suspects mount up, and Scotland Yard's Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is called in to sift through the evidence – and the complicated relationships and passions beneath the calm surface of English village life – to come up with a solution to the mystery.
Cover Her Face was P.D. James's first novel, and marked the debut of poetry-writing sleuth Adam Dalgliesh. Published in 1962, it was written, so James says, during her train rides to and from her civil servant's job in London. It was wildly successful and spawned a best-selling series that is still going strong today – her latest entry, The Private Patient, was published last year.
I've loved every one of the books, but somehow I had neglected the first book until this year. I wondered how it would compare to the later, perhaps more polished works – and the answer is that it holds up very well. James's style is already pretty fully developed, and her adept handling of characterization is evident from the book's first page. The London Sunday Times has famously referred to her as "the greatest contemporary writer of classic crime." I would not disagree with that statement; and I'd say Adam Dalgliesh is one of the most fascinating characters in fiction – detective fiction or any other genre. I'm so glad I finally managed to read the book that introduced him to the world.
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