Death in Holy Orders by P D James ( Faber and Faber, $28.95)
"What's an archdeacon ?
A kind of Rottweiler of the Church "
So writes P D James in her latest murder mystery "Death in Holy Orders"( Faber and Faber, $28.95) Perhaps many bishops think the same as well as many laity, but never a parish priest who always welcome a "visit" from their Archdeacon.
The scene of James' novel is an archidiaconal visit to an Anglo-Catholic Seminary on the coast of Suffolk in England. The Seminary, St Anselm's, is a small time Catholic oasis compared to "Staggers" (St Stephen's Hall Oxford) with only 20 ordinands all of whom must have a good honors degree to be admitted. Like other seminaries the students all know each other intimately, as do the four priests who are responsible for their ministry formation. There are also some auxiliary staff who play a major role in the story, so there are a few women around, even though in support roles.
As with other P D James' mysteries, the investigating police officer is Commander Adam Dalgliesh, who rises in her novels from Chief Inspector to Chief Superintendent and then to Commander at Scotland Yard. He is "C of E" (Christmas and Easter), a secret poet, introverted and moralistic, and has a good interviewing technique more akin to the confessional than NYPD.
Late on the Saturday night of the visit to the Seminary, the Archdeacon is murdered, and the rest of the story is …. Well I will leave that to you to read, as "Death in Holy Orders" is a "must read"
From a theological point of view, murder mysteries develop a theory of life and death. "Death is like birth, painful, messy, and undignified. Most of the time anyway" Such novels raise questions like immortality - to have a murder investigation on you can mean that you are remembered after you have died and "we owe the dead our pity and understanding". To have been murdered means that you had a position in life, a perverted type of life after death, and maybe reach headlines in the newspapers. So a murder story is a bit like a Mourner's Kiddush for the departed, though "parenthood is … our only chance of vicarious immortality"
P D James had her own share of difficulties in life. Born on 3 Aug 1920 in Oxford, she grew up in Cambridge, her father being a middle grade tax collector. She left school at 16, and thereafter was self-educated.. In 1941 she married a medic who did war service, leaving him mentally ill and disturbed until his death in 1964. She worked in hospital administration, and later joined the criminal section of the Department of Home Affairs. Retiring in 1979 to write full time, she was made a life peer in 1991 - "Baroness James".
James' novels are very civilised and every one is terribly polite to each other -which is a change from all those boring novels that try to teach us bad words. She pays a lot of attention to atmosphere, and on reading her novel I felt I could smell the furniture polish from my own theological college in Oxford, especially in the library and chapel. Describing herself as "a lark not an owl" she likes the gentle art of murder.