The Skull Beneath the Skin Hardcover – Aug 1982
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" A masterly version of the clue-and-alibi game. . . . Five star!" -- "The Guardian "" P.D. James pulls out all the stops ...combining the enclosed setting of the country-house murder with elements of the horror story; an overlay of lust; a collection of relics of Victorian murderers ...midnight apparitions; hairbreadth escapes." -- "New York Magazine" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
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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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.
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
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.
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.