The Skull Beneath the Skin (Cordelia Gray #2) by PD James

The Skull Beneath the Skin (Cordelia Gray, #2)

It was the setup that convinced me to buy this one: Private detective Cordelia Gray is hired by the husband of aging actress Clarissa Lisle, who has been receiving death threats in the form of literary quotations. It doesn’t seem particularly sinister, but Clarissa has an important performance coming up and the notes are affecting her career, so her husband calls Cordelia in to find out who is leaving the notes. To do this, Cordelia pretends to be Clarissa’s secretary and accompanies her to Courcy Island, where Clarissa is scheduled to perform in a production of The Duchess of Malfi, held in the theater of the castle on the island. Also on the island: Clarissa’s cousin, a theater critic who has a history with the actress, her stepson from a previous marriage, and their host and owner of the castle.

If it sounds like the setup for a classic 1930’s detective story, that’s very intentional. I haven’t read any of James’s other work, so I don’t know how this plot compares, but this book reads almost like someone challenged her write her own version of an Agatha Christie closed-house murder mystery. The resemblance to an old-school detective story is so great, in fact, that I spent the first chapter thinking that it did take place in the 1930’s, and was slightly jarred when a character referenced an event in 1977. The book’s similarities to a classic Agatha Christie novel are so frequent that it serves as a running joke throughout the story. When the two police officers are discussing the suspects, this exchange happens:

“‘And the butler, sir.’
‘Thank you for reminding me, Sergeant. We mustn’t forget the butler. I regard the butler as a gratuitous insult on the part of fate.'”

I realize the the story’s close resemblance to a 1930’s mystery is intentional, and part of the joke, but the problem is that I generally read mysteries written and taking place exclusively during that era, and couldn’t get used to the fact that this book was happening after Woodstock. That being said, modern life doesn’t intrude on the story too often (the characters’ dialogue, possibly because they’re all posh and British, sounds almost exactly the way 1930’s dialogue sounds, and they still do things like dress for dinner and sit around drinking claret served by a butler) so if you want to pretend that the book is taking place in 1935, nothing is really stopping you aside from the rare reference to an event that took place in 1977 or something.

Putting my own personal preferences aside, this is a very well-done mystery. It’s more of a psychological thriller than a classic detective yarn, but there’s still plenty of poking around crime scenes and interviewing suspects to satisfy the Christie fans. Cordelia Gray (come ON, tell me that isn’t the name of Nancy Drew’s plucky girl-detective best friend who grew up in New York and brings her street-smarts and tough-girl charm to help with Nancy’s investigations and excuse me I have a fan fiction to write) is a good heroine, equal parts capable and self-doubting. This is the second installment of her adventures, and there are a lot of references to the first Cordelia Gray book, where she apparently investigated a murder with an older detective who trained her how to solve crimes, and frankly that sounds fun as hell, so I’ll have to look that one up soon. The ending is perfectly satisfying, with all the loose ends nicely tied up, although the final confrontation is a bit predictable – early in the book, all the guests are getting a tour of the crypts under the castle, and the host is like, hey, everybody look at this trapdoor that leads to a cave where some guy was drowned a long time ago! and I was like, well, I know how someone’s going to try to kill our heroine now.

But all in all, a good introduction to PD James and her work. I liked the mystery, and I liked Cordelia (time period non-withstanding), and will definitely be on the lookout for more of her adventures in the future.

Verdict: three out of five stars



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2 responses to “The Skull Beneath the Skin (Cordelia Gray #2) by PD James

  1. I think you’ll enjoy the first book in the series (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). It starts off as a typical detective story, but there’s an interesting twist near the end where it becomes something very different.

  2. I think this may have been my first P. D. James book also – one of those Book of the Month books that arrived because I didn’t send back the card back in the ’80s. I read it and loved the writing and have gone back and read everything else I have found by James except for “Death Comes to Pemberly” because I haven’t read “Pride & Prejudice” yet (I know, I know, it’s in the queue…). Her main detective is Adam Dalgliesh who is quite a fascinating charater himself and is the older detective referenced in this book. The first Cordelia Gray book is “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman”. P. D. James has even written a science-fiction type book that I can’t remember the name of right now – maybe “Children of Men”(?) and that is quite good as well.

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