Here’s an admission – somehow I’ve got to this stage without reading a P.D. James… So I was reasonably pleased when I got given this volume of The Black Tower, which charts a slice of Adam Dalgliesh’s career. However, I didn’t rush to open it up – after all, I reasoned, I’ve seen the TV series, so I expect it will be a fairly uninspiring read, now that I know what’s in store… How wrong can you be?
Commander Dalgliesh is recuperating from a life-threatening illness when he receives a call for advice from an elderly friend who works as a chaplain in a home for the disabled on the Dorset coast. Dalgliesh arrives to discover that Father Baddeley has recently and mysteriously died, as has one of the patients at Toynton Grange. Evidently the home is not quite the caring community it purports to be. Dalgliesh is determined to discover the truth about his friend’s death, but further fatalities follow and his own life is suddenly under attack as he unmasks the evil at the heart of Toynton Grange.
And there you have it – the blurb. All fairly straightforward stuff. But what I hadn’t expected was the sheer excellence of James’ prose that bares Dalgliesh to our gaze, complete with all his doubts, vulnerabilities, minor irritations – along with his pin-sharp observations and ever-busy brain. Her scene setting is well balanced with the action and given through Dalgliesh’s eyes, so that we experience his observations about the ugly Victorian pile that is Toynton Grange and the eerie Black Tower. Having been born and bred in Dorset, I know the stretch of coast where James has more or less set the story and it is, indeed, atmospheric and weird.
This is not a breathless, action-driven story. Dalgliesh is debilitated, guilty and depressed when he arrives at Dorset and convinced that as soon as he returns to London, he will be retiring from the Force. So the mood is low-key and doesn’t get any bouncier when the Commander discovers that his elderly friend has already died. And so starts the steady trickle of wrongness that continues to build through this story. James is very good at continuing to ramp up the tension, so that I stayed up way past midnight to reach the denouement.
Of course, creating a big old build-up is all well and good – but the catch is that then, you have to deliver a suitably strong climax. Does James tick that box? Oh, yes – she certainly does. I’ll remember the ending of this chilling thriller for a very long time. All the more for her implacably calm pacing and pitch perfect control. Want to know how to write a superb crime whodunit? Read The Black Tower. It’s an engrossing, readable thriller written by a master craftswoman at the height of her writing powers – and if you haven’t read it, you should… really.