Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh dashes into the world of P. D. James to sort out the bizarre killings of student nurses in a post-war British training hospital fifty miles outside London. In Shroud for a Nightingale, a demonstration of intubating a patient turns into a primer on murder and the students of Nightingale House and their instructors are horrified. Then another student dies and debate rages about the cause—was she killed or did she commit suicide?
Dalgliesh has his suspicions, of course. The presence of one of his volumes of poetry in the dead woman’s bookshelf may prejudice him slightly but his instincts are never far off. So he sets about methodically uncovering motive and means. The story is brimful of complex characters—a few with surprising twists. Even the ones risking caricature have back stories to surprise a reader.
Relationships in the hospital and the old Victorian estate on the grounds that serves as the nursing school are convoluted. Personalities range from polite to thorny and motives flit about the gloomy halls like ominous ghosts. James conjures up plenty of atmosphere, loose ends, dead ends and ends that never justify the means. Tracking the tale is fascinating because the author and her sleuth are so intelligent—lots of false leads, no false steps.
It is to James’ credit that seasoned mystery readers can guess at unlikely suspects but be thoroughly misled back into the maze. It’s a relief to put yourself in the hands of a master for a few hours and just live in a good story. Her sleuth is an admirable but imperfect man who freely admits (most of) his shortcomings—and doesn’t hesitate to point out the failings of his colleagues. Murder is a moral issue in a James novel and, while details may be titillating, crime is never reduced to a mere plot device. The victims are revealed in all their flawed humanity as well as the perpetrators.
Shroud for a Nightingale depicts some graphic suffering, the terrible resonance of war crimes, the strange ways people invent to cope with their tragedies and a particular place and time in history, with wonderful verisimilitude. It’s like the pensieve in Harry Potter, stick your face between its covers and fall into a vivid movie that lets up only at the last page. P. D. James has written a new murder mystery set in Pemberley, the estate of delicious Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. I’ve reserved it at the library–can’t wait for my name to come up in that long queue.
Shroud for a Nightingale (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #4) P. D. James | Touchstone 2001