The skull beneath the skin

David Dawson & Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi
at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, London
The second (and last) outing of P.D. James' private detective, Cordelia Gray, The skull beneath the skin, is one of James' most enjoyable novels. With an enticing blend of crime and a touch of gothic horror, it's a great read. Gray is an engaging detective. One that, sadly, James never seems to have entirely warmed to. It's a shame as in many ways she's a better character than the clever, but oddly aseptic, Adam Dalgleish, James' other great hero.

Gray, desperately in need of more work than the standard detective fare of tracking down stray moggies, is hired by Sir George Ralston. His wife, the classical actress Clarissa Lisle, has been succumbing to a particularly nasty attack of stage fright following the receipt of some increasingly unpleasant poison pen letters featuring lurid quotations from Tudor and Jacobean playwrights.

Lisle is about to spend a weekend at Courcy Castle, the island home of eccentric Ambrose Gorringe, where she is to play the eponymous heroine of The Duchess of Malfi. As though the play wasn't enough to scare her half to death, there's Ambrose's collection of crime memorabilia, and one of the other 10 visitors to the island is going to make sure that Lisle is in for a memorable visit.

James shamelessly borrows from other crime writers - 10 people stuck on an island just off the coast of the UK, one of them a murderer - sound familiar? Plenty of old crimes have long shadows, along with a dash of sex and grand guignol.

The final solution doesn't entirely convince. And as always with James the characterisation is rather strange. Many of the characters are larger than life, often more caricature than convincing characterisation. Although in The skull beneath the skin there is a point to this aping of Webster, whose own characterisation is larger than life too.

There are plenty of niggles in this novel. But there's also something oddly compelling about it. A fun read for the crime aficionado.


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