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.