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The Skull Beneath the Skin [Hardcover]

P. D. James
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 1982
Hired as a bodyguard to faded actress Clarissa Lisle, the recent recipient of numerous death threats, Cordelia Gray accompanies the actress to an island castle, whose owner collects funeral paraphernalia, in a full-cast dramatization of the classic mystery. Book available.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Review

“A fine novel . . . from its very first pages you feel you are in marvellously sure hands.”
—The Times
 
“Irresistible.”
Winnipeg Free Press
 
“Original, suspenseful, ingenious. . . . A whacking great whodunit by the reigning Queen of Mystery.”
Calgary Sun
 
“Her concern with the psychological reality of her characters is complemented by a scrupulous attention to physical detail, an easy ear for dialogue and a concise voice for description. Taken together, these are an unfailing combination.”
The Hamilton Spectator

"The reason it takes me so long to write is because it takes a long time for the characters to reveal themselves to me. My ambition as a writer is to make even the minor characters come alive."
—P. D. James

"James pulls out all the stops ... an overlay of lust; midnight apparitions; hairbreadth escapes."
—New York Magazine

"A masterly version of the clue-and-alibi game ... five star."
The Guardian


--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

"The reason it takes me so long to write is because it takes a long time for the characters to reveal themselves to me. My ambition as a writer is to make even the minor characters come alive." --P. D. James

"James pulls out all the stops ... an overlay of lust; midnight apparitions; hairbreadth escapes." --New York Magazine

"A masterly version of the clue-and-alibi game ... five star." --The Guardian


 


--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Again, Cordelia Gray April 17 2002
Format:Paperback
To the best of my knowledge, P.D. James only wrote two books about her young female detective Cordelia Gray. That's unfortunate, because I enjoyed both of them very much, especially this one. It has all of the "classic" elements of the British murder mystery: the castle, an island, an oddly assorted company, a butler, an interesting wealthy man, assorted relatives, and a grisly murder. Cordelia must sort out everything in the end, and even though the ultiumate outcome is somewhat in doubt, there's rarely a dull moment throughout this book. You follow Ms. Gray's progress avidly, and try to keep up with what's going on around her to gather your own clues about the murder. I'll admit that I was shocked at the resolution of the mystery, and that's one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. If you haven't read Ms. James, start with "An Unsuitable Job For A Woman", the first Cordelia Gray mystery, and then progress to this work. You won't be disappointed!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Cordelia Gray does her thing! Jan. 31 2004
Format:Audio Cassette
I have listened to this dramatization several times since purchasing it in 1990 and have enjoyed this atomsopheric suspense mystery immensely. P.D. James ability to give all her characters faults, insecurities, and occasional selfishness once again serves her well in this mystery. The characters are as developed as possible in the space of a 3 hour radio play. The atmosphere created on the island is just incredible, spooky, and just what you would expect in that setting. The character of Cordelia Gray is very well developed over the course of this story and her other adventure, "An Unsuitable Job For a Woman." I consider these two stories to be my favorite P.D. James mysteries. I strongly recommend these to all P.D. Jmaes fans as cracking good yarns and very entertaining.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great mystery writer. June 29 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
PD James' well worth re-reading all her mysteries. I hope she lives and writes forever! She is now in her eighties and still presents a good story, mystery, characters.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable But Slightly Flawed May 22 2012
By Debra Purdy Kong TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Private investigator Cordelia Gray has been hired by Sir George Ralston to accompany his wife, Clarissa, to Courcy Island, where Clarissa is to star in a play. Cordelia's mission is to keep the persistent poison pen letters away from Clarissa. They've already caused one meltdown on stage and Sir George doesn't want another. Protecting Clarissa from the letters is one thing, but protecting her from death is something else. When Clarissa is discovered murdered prior to the performance, Cordelia's guilt prompts her to help find the killer.

The Skull Beneath the Skin is classic P.J. James, employing the same style as her Dalgleish mysteries, with suspects cloistered in a remote area and plenty of bad blood to go around. However, the primary difference between Gray and Dalgleish novels is the protagonists. Cordelia shares similar traits with Dalgleish in that she's focused, serious, and resourceful, but there's much more. Her youth, emotion, compassion, and doubts are all beautifully displayed through inner monologue that gives readers an intimacy lacking in a Dalgleish novel

Since this isn't a police procedural and James incorporates multiple viewpoints, there is a jarring section from the police POV, which has little to do with Cordelia, and went on too long. Also, as Cordelia searches for a piece of the missing puzzle on the mainland toward the end of the book, she makes a baffling error in judgment by not sharing a key piece if evidence with the police. Still, I enjoyed the book, as Cordelia was a breath of fresh air from the stodgy Dalgleish.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  47 reviews
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Again, Cordelia Gray April 17 2002
By Frank J. Konopka - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
To the best of my knowledge, P.D. James only wrote two books about her young female detective Cordelia Gray. That's unfortunate, because I enjoyed both of them very much, especially this one. It has all of the "classic" elements of the British murder mystery: the castle, an island, an oddly assorted company, a butler, an interesting wealthy man, assorted relatives, and a grisly murder. Cordelia must sort out everything in the end, and even though the ultiumate outcome is somewhat in doubt, there's rarely a dull moment throughout this book. You follow Ms. Gray's progress avidly, and try to keep up with what's going on around her to gather your own clues about the murder. I'll admit that I was shocked at the resolution of the mystery, and that's one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. If you haven't read Ms. James, start with "An Unsuitable Job For A Woman", the first Cordelia Gray mystery, and then progress to this work. You won't be disappointed!
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars P.D. James makes an unwelcome departure July 11 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Cordelia Gray, the brave and endearing young private investigator who made her debut in P.D. James' AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN, returns in the author's eighth whodunit, THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN. The title's from Webster, and it's a fitting one; the story literally reeks of the theater. Clarissa Lisle is a bitchy, fading actress determined to salvage her career as the star of an amateur production of Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi," staged in a restored Victorian theater on Courcy Island, just off the coast of Dorset. Lisle has been receiving mysterious poison-pen letters, death notes in the form of quotations from Shakespeare and Webster, and has hired Cordelia to discover their source. The castle on Courcy Island becomes the stage for a tense gathering of Clarissa's friends, relatives, and guests--each of whom, we learn, has excellent motive for killing the actress. When the death does inevitably occur, Cordelia finds herself left with a case of murder that she fully intends to--and does--unravel.
THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN may be the most stylish, lavishly mounted novel that James has written. It's an overflowing mixture of the elements of the detective/horror tale at its most clichéd--the closed circle of suspects in a Victorian castle on a small island serviced by a spooky, tight-lipped butler and his wife, a crypt filled with skulls, a collection of memorabilia from past murders, frightening knick-knacks in the shapes of human appendages...it's all gloriously entertaining, never for a minute even coming close to realism. And therein lies the fatal flaw of the novel.
P.D. James' novels are seldom been anything but realistic, but she seems to have broken the rule in THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN. The Gothic horror, portrayed in a darkly comic manner, clashes painfully with her finely drawn, introspective characters (except Clarissa Lisle, one of the few two-dimensional stereotypes who pop up in James' fiction) and flawlessly crafted prose. It's as if she's written two completely different novels, one a brilliant character study, the other a conventional ghost story, and meshed them together with little regard for the coherence of the result. Until now, James has done a marvelous job proving that the English mystery can make an extraordinarily fine mainstream novel; unfortunately, she's also shown that the magic combination can work only when her settings are serious and controlled. THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN is not serious. It's not too far from out-and-out comedy, and James' admirable but vain attempts to weave her fantastic set pieces and excessively necrophilic atmosphere into a profound work of fiction makes it even more funny.
Not that most readers will care. This is still an absorbing entertainment--substantial, cunningly plotted, and beautifully written. More discriminating readers will conclude that either THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN is a parody written by a skilled impersonator, or P.D. James has seen one Dracula movie too many.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I'm afraid of death--the skull beneath the skin." April 6 2005
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Now almost twenty-five years old, this mystery by P. D. James is a delightful entertainment, filled with plot twists and turns, over-the-top action, and characters who are so exaggerated that they might be considered caricatures. Cordelia Gray, a detective whose job is usually the finding of lost pets, is hired to guard egomaniacal actress Clarissa Lisle during the days leading up to her performance in The Duchess of Malfi. Always preoccupied with death, Clarissa has recently received threatening notes, leaving her hysterical on the eve of her performance.

Both Cordelia Gray and Clarissa Lisle are staying at Sir Ambrose Gorringe's Victorian castle, perched high on a remote island where Gorringe has restored the theater at which Clarissa will perform. A collector of morbid relics, including, most recently, the arm from a memorial statue of a dead child, Gorringe also delights in telling the island's history as a place where German POWs were interned.

When, despite precautions, Clarissa Lisle is, in fact, murdered--with the marble arm from the dead child's statue--the reader is presented with a typical "closed room" murder, the killer obviously one of a dozen or so people staying at the castle, each with a possible motive for killing Clarissa--the need of money for a business, blackmail, long-standing hatred, blame for the death of a child, humiliation, rejection. As the police (and Cordelia) investigate, the story of the island and the death of a German prisoner plays a role in the action.

As always, James's eerie setting furthers the mystery and enhances the suspense. The quirky and memorable characters are well drawn, but they often border on absurdity, and James's large cast and her use of stereotypes prevent significant character development. The unfolding mystery and constant plot twists keep the reader guessing--just when the murderer has been "uncovered," doubts arise about other characters and their possible involvement. Additional deaths keep the tension high, and the ending, in keeping with the tone of the novel, shows the decadence of these "elite" characters. Numerous quotations from plays by Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, and John Webster add additional (and ironic) dramatic punch to this mystery-melodrama. Highly entertaining and often wickedly amusing. Mary Whipple
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My favorite P.D. James novel March 22 2001
By Tom From NY - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I've recently read a good deal of Baroness James' work, and found much to admire if not a lot to like. While clearly and intelligently written, her works all too often come perilously close to sinking under their own High Moral Weight, and, I am afraid, are very nearly humorless. Adam Dalgliesh's gloom can get rather oppressive, and I was often moved to suggest that he get some Prozac.
The Skull Beneath The Skin, however, is the exception to the rule. Dalgliesh is nowhere in sight. James brings her other creation to the forefront, a woman named Cordelia Gray, last seen in James' An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. Cordelia runs her own detective agency, and at the start of the novel is hired to protect a neurotic actress from a series of poison-pen letters during an upcoming amateur theatrical production to take place on a secluded island.
James seems to be taking on the classic murder mystery, complete with despicable victim, exotic locale, small number of suspects each equipped with a motive, and finally, a rather bizarre murder weapon. The story moves swiftly and entertainingly, the characters live on the page, and if the denouement is rather unsatisfying, well, I think that is very much the point that James is making. Those classic whodunits are not about life, they are more about creating a puzzle for the reader to solve. James, however, wants to make us think about the realities of her situations, and to see her characters as living people, not just as cardboard types. In this book she James takes the genre out for a ride, and manages to have some good mean fun with it.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Corking, thoughtful, beautifully characterised April 30 2001
By Anglo Jackson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This was my second P. D. James novel (the first was A CertainJustice).. P. D. James is a remarkable writer who uses her greattalents to great effect in this novel which is on the one hand gripping, intricate and colorful and on the other hand sensible, thoughtful and feminine.
Cordelia Grey (I have not read "An unsuitable job for a woman") is of great interest as a woman detective created by a woman author. She is a mature young woman, confident and sensible, who shares with many of Muriel Spark, or of Penelope Fitzgerald's female characters, a refreshing ability to be a woman without apology or undue reference to men (other than obliquely to Dagleish, hinted at as a potential lover, and her late patner who had killed himself). Cordelia is thrown into a turbulent situation filled with men and women who see themselves through the eyes of men (women who are not mothers - or thwarted mothers, or step-mothers - who have unhealthy sex lives).
It is not my intention to say that this is a feminist tract. It is not. It is a ripping good novel which is also highly intelligent. But it achieves a power and a level of insight through its author's sophisticated understanding of gender roles and relations that puts it in a very high class among novels of manners...Given an odd situation there was a very great deal of realism and it is unjust to forbear from extending to a crime novelist - or indeed any novelist - the grace to set up an odd situation.
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