2 November 2010

Review: THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN, P.D. James - audio

LENGTH: 13 hrs and 1 min
Narrated by Jane Asher
Available from Audible.com

Published in 1982. James' second Cordelia Gray novel.

Publisher's Summary:
An intriguing assignment, Cordelia Gray thought, and not a particularly arduous one. The poison pen messages to Clarissa Lyle were to be stopped, or at least deflected, until after the performance of The Duchess of Malfi at Ambrose Gorringe's private theatre on Courcy Island. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Clarissa Lyle's enemy is on the island with her, and Cordelia finds herself trapped in an atmosphere of fear and violence, a violence that is to culminate in brutal murder.

The thing that struck me as I listened to THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN was the intricate detail both in the description of the characters and the setting, that creates vivid mind pictures.

The setting of a murder mystery that takes place on an island, with a very limited cast of characters, is one that has fascinated most of our great crime fiction authors. It is a setting that P.D. James will return to again in a more recent novel, THE LIGHTHOUSE.

Cordelia Gray is an interesting detective, who doesn't really seem very well equipped, rather inexperienced, to protect Clarissa Lyle. Cordelia's main experience to date has been with domestic issues like lost cats, and that is how Clarissa comes to know of her. Neither Clarissa or her husband Sir George seem to believe there is any real threat to Clarissa's life. Cordelia is to go to Courcy Island for the weekend as a companion/secretary to Clarissa.

There's plenty of mystery in this novel. Many people have reason to hate Clarissa Lyle: from her dresser who has been with her all of her life; the owner of island Ambrose Gorringe over whom Clarissa seems to have some hold; her cousin Roma who is desperate for financial help; Ivo, a mortally sick journalist who was once a lover; and her foster son Simon who is desperate to go on to university. In the long run it will come down to Cordelia's word against another's.

Another aspect of THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN that fascinated me was the clever move of the narrative from one point of view to another. Most of the story comes from Cordelia's point of view but on occasion we move into another character's mind. It is very cleverly done.

The two Cordelia Gray novels are sandwiched among the Adam Dalgliesh series (1962-2008). Dalgliesh does not appear in THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN, although Cordelia refers to him a couple of times, once by name and once as "the Commander". Unknown to her, Dalgliesh vouches for Cordelia to the detectives investigating the case.

My rating: 4.7

The first Cordelia Gray novel was AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN, and was published 10 years prior to THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN. There were no more in the series.

Publisher's blurb:
Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces P. D. James's courageous but vulnerable young detective, Cordelia Gray, in a "top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way".


Bernadette in Australia said...

I admit to being a bit fed up with Commander Dalgliesh but I am curious to give this character a try. Just saw that the first book is available at audible so have added it to my wishlist. thanks.

Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - Thanks for this - as always, a fine review. Like Bernadette, I'm more familiar with Dalgliesh than I am with Cordelia Gray, but she's a fascinating character, isn't she?

kathy d. said...

I saw the Cordelia Gray series on dvd, must have been from the BBC.

They were very well done.


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