This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week the theme is a cover featuring a tower, so I’ve selected The Black Tower – Book 5 of the Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries by P.D. James.
This edition was produced by Touchstone in April 2012 and I want to like it more than I do. It seems a rather cool idea to envelope a rather haunting image of a tower in a very dark tint. In reality, I think the result is rather dreary and unappealing – though I’m unsure whether that’s really the case, or the fact that I am very much drawn to bright, sunshine colours.
Published in April 2010 by Faber and Faber, I much prefer this version – though it might also be because this is cover of the book that I’ve read. It is rather brooding with a stark beauty about it and I also like the way the author and title fonts have been handled. This one is my favourite.
This edition, published by Scribner Book Company in January 1975, must have had poor P.D. James sighing in disgust. What were they thinking? This is a sophisticated murder mystery featuring a nuanced, clever protagonist during a personal crisis. Yet, this looks like something out of a Boys’ Own Annual…
This Spanish edition, produced by B de Books in August 2012 is certainly a lot better than the previous effort. The tower perched on the edge of the cliffs with the sea in the foreground and the deep blue colour is certainly attractive, but I think this cover still lacks sufficient finesse for such a cleverly constructed book.
This German cover, published in December 1998, is a dreadful effort. Someone let the children loose in the graphics department and then accidentally forgot to erase the effort – surely? So we have the photo of a ruined tower grafted over the image of flames which aren’t even to scale, making the whole thing look completely false. And then they further ruined the dodgy effort by plonking a lot of writing on the cover – although, come to think of it, maybe they added it in a vain attempt to draw attention away from the shockingly bad job they’d made. Which is your favourite?
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.