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Monday, August 17, 2009

Death of an Expert Witness. P.D.James. Sphere Books (1977)

This low key and very well constructed mystery novel is a contemporary version of the classical locked room mystery. At a somewhat remote state forensic laboratory a deeply unpleasant scientist is found dead, the building was locked and the keys accounted for and a large cast of possible and plausible suspects.Unravelling who the murderer is and how the act was accomplished falls to Commander Adam Dalgliesh. The story unwinds at a very deliberate pace, the investigation is driven by thought and procedure rather than by action. The large cast react to the murder and the investigation in a very natural and credible fashion, the mix of wishing to be involved and to distance themselves from the intrusions of the investigation is well written. The reveals are are carefully paced and the resolution is satisfying and unforced.

Any locked room mystery risks being dominated by the puzzle element pushing the human cast to the sidelines. P.D.James avoids this, the human cast is very much to the forefront with the puzzle and the murder itself taken as an opportunity to examine them closely. The slightly unemotional tone of the writing acts to delay the readers realisation of the depth and ferocity of the emotions that are being detailed. The victim is savagely unpleasant, the rest of the cast are largely unsympathetic, it is a considerable tribute to P.D.James skill that she makes them engaging and renders murder a genuine outrage. This is a crime story that is also a substantial drama without compromising either element, well worth reading.

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