12 December 2009 | classicalsteve
Henry James meets Agatha Christie: Masterpiece of Murder, Character, and the Enigma of Human Motivation
If you're looking for a typical escapist murder mystery, a la Agatha Christie, the offerings of P.D. James will either disappoint or enthrall. For me, my reaction was the latter. P.D. James has upgraded the typical murder mystery into something that enters the realm of high literature, akin to what you might expect of Henry James, George Eliot, or F. Scott Fitzgerald if they had written genre fiction. Unlike Agatha Christie's novels where a bunch of stereotypical caricatures were often thrown together into a single setting in which one of them winds up dead for their troubles with the survivors all suspects, James weaves an intricate tale of complex characters engaging in complex relationships. The murder becomes one element in a large matrix of interconnected behavior and impetus that cannot be pigeon-holed into pop novel convention. (This is not meant to be an attack on Christie whose solutions were always quite amazing.) James, like her literary predecessors, is as interested in character and motivation as she is in the essential plot.
"A Taste for Death", one of James' best efforts, begins in typical murder mystery fashion. A member of parliament, Sir Paul Berowne, has been receiving blackmail letters regarding his past relationships. From there, things become more complicated. A young woman drowns in a recreational pond, apparently as a result of swimming while intoxicated. The lover of Paul Berowne's wife tries to save her, unsuccessfully. We further learn that the state of affairs of the Berowne family is influx, but this is not the Colbys or the Ewings. Some aspects may seem soap-operatic but the problems run much deeper. And Berowne had been attending a 19th-century Anglican church in Paddington, and he had decided to relinquish his parliamentary seat. He then makes an unusual request: to stay in the church one night, locked in.
The following day, a working-class boy and an older housekeeper discover, much to their horror, the dead bodies of Berowne and a vagrant inside the vestry of the church in Paddington. Their throats have been slashed so Inspector Adam Dalgliesh (Roy Marsden) who has taken up the case knows that this was a homicide. As he gradually unfolds the case, he not only meets the different people and circumstances surrounding the victims, particularly that of the Berowne, but we learn about a myriad of intricate relationships and circumstances. This is no ordinary case of simple robbery but most likely premeditated murder.
Paul Berowne's life before his death is gradually revealed through Dalgliesh's investigations, although they answer little about the exact how of his murder. He was a prominent member of a high class family which faces the most pressing crises of its existence. Wendy Hiller (who played the stand-offish Princess Dragomiroff in the film version of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express") is Lady Ursula Berowne, the matriarch of the Berowne dynasty, although she is no caricature like you might find in "Dallas" or "Dynasty". Lady Berowne is a shrewd yet sensitive woman who wants to find the right combination of morality and familial success. She is strong but fair, but was uninterested in her late son's interest in the church. Her motives are not so easily unearthed. The story becomes as much about her as her son, the late baronet. The other members of the family, Lady Barbara Berowne, the victim's estranged wife, and her lover Stephen Lambert, are equally as enigmatic. Lady Berowne is pregnant with her late husband's son. Not until the end are their true intentions finally revealed.
An exceptional television film series written by an exceptional talent. This is no ordinary murder mystery. If you are looking for something different and tantalizing, you might give "A Taste for Death" a try. But do not expect the likes of Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple to be able to solve this case. They understood minute physical details but probably could not handle the intricacy of the human heart. Leave that to Adam Dalgliesh.