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