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Death in Holy Orders

Book Review

Title: Death in Holy Orders

Author: P D James

Publisher: Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2001

Pages: 415

St Anselm’s is an immense Victorian mansion on “one of the bleakest parts of the East Coast of England.”* It is a theological college of the Church of England with four priest-teachers and 20 ordinands. One fine morning, the dead body of one of the young ordinands is washed ashore. It is assumed to be an accident until an anonymous letter reaches Sir Alred Treeves, adoptive father of the ordinand and a flamboyant businessman. The letter implies the possibility of a murder. None less than Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is commissioned to find out the truth. Dalgliesh’s arrival at the ecclesiastical college is followed by three deaths one of which is a violent murder, another appears natural death, and the third seems to be an accident. The novel probes all these four deaths in a complex and gripping narrative.

What lends charm to the novel, in addition to the riveting plot, is the cast of characters. St Anselm’s has an unsavoury history in the first place with a homosexual scandal in 1923 and a mass conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1932. The present story is taking place in 2001 and the four priests teaching at the college have their own intriguing histories too. Father John, for instance, was imprisoned once for alleged sexual offences against two boys. Father Martin is a survivor of a Japanese prison camp who now, in his old age, is tormented by nightmares about those old, painful experiences. Father Sebastian, the Warden (the Chief, in layman’s terms) of St Anslem’s, has a sense of indebtedness to Inspector Yarwood who is now in the college for a brief period of recuperation. This same Yarwood happens to be the police officer who investigated a case against Archdeacon Crampton who is keen on getting St Anslem’s closed because of its elitism which over-valued “intelligence and intellectual achievement so that theology became a philosophical exercise in justifying scepticism.” According to the Archdeacon, institutions like St Anslem’s converted the Church into “a social organization within which the comfortable middle class could satisfy it craving for beauty, order, nostalgia and the illusion of spirituality.”

No sooner does the Archdeacon express his views against the college eloquently in a homily than he gets killed violently in the church of the college which is usually under lock and key because it houses some very precious paintings. Inspector Yarwood who investigated the death of the Archdeacon’s first wife and hence has been hated by the Archdeacon goes missing soon after this murder. But he will be discovered later as an ill person who could not commit any violent crime. So who killed the Archdeacon?

Are the other two deaths in the college natural? The author of this novel shrewdly tells us clearly in the beginning itself that Margaret Munroe’s death (an old woman and a former nurse who now works in the college as a Matron and housekeeper) is a murder perpetrated by a person who was close enough to her. “Oh, it’s you,” are her last words. Since she was a heart patient, everyone in the college assumes that hers was a natural death. But the reader knows that it isn’t.

Father John’s sister, who has been living with him in the college for quite some time, falls down from a stairway and dies. Is it a natural death, however, though she is a very old woman who could not climb those steep steps easily? Anyway, what was she doing on these steps leading to the wine cellar in the middle of the night?

She used to pilfer wine once in a while. The priests knew it and ignored it. Moreover, they helped her by adding a secure banister rail to the steep steps and also added sufficient light in the area so that she would not miss her way at all. We come across some very charming human motives and relationships in this novel. But the question is: Is the death of that old woman natural? The answer will come at the end of the novel as quite a surprise to the reader.

There are many surprises that this novel offers to the discerning reader. Many things to ponder about too. Let me end this review with a quote:

If life is hard and short and full of pain, you need the hope of heaven; if there is no effective law, you need the deterrent of hell. The Church gave them comfort and light and pictures and stories and the hope of everlasting life. The twenty-first century has other compensations. Football, for one. There you have ritual, colour, drama, the sense of belonging; football has its high priests, even its martyrs.”

P D James [1920-2014] wrote this novel when she was 80 years old. One should salute the complexity of her brain that created a novel like this at that age.

* All quotes are from the novel.

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  1. Hari OM
    PDJ is one of my all-time favourite authors and the Dalgliesh books were on my shelves for a long time (I had to 'rationalise' prior to moving continents). Definitely worth the reading! YAM xx

    1. It was silly of me to have forgotten Dalgliesh while reviewing this book.


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