Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Mass market, 355 pages, 1962

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I’ve heard a lot about P.D. James but I’d never read anything of hers, so I pulled this one out of the basement when I was in the mood for a mystery.

Synopsis: Mrs. Maxie thinks she’s doing a good deed when she consents to let Sally, an unwed mother, into her home to work as a maid. But Sally isn’t exactly the grateful type – she’s sly and she’s increasingly forgetting her place, until it culminates in her announcing that Mrs. Maxie’s son, Stephen has asked her to marry him. But she’ll never get the chance, because that night someone in the household has decided if Sally can’t remember her place in the household, she deserves a new place – in an early grave. Shortly after her body is found, Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh shows up, ready to pry out the many secrets of the members of the Maxie family, their friends, and the rest of the household help.

Why you should read this book: Cover Her Face is a classic whodunit that will definitely hit the spot if that’s what you’re in the mood for. While the plot is clearly the priority in the novel, James also makes sure that her characters are vivid and real. The suspects and clues are carefully laid out for the reader, ready for analyzation, but regardless, Cover Her Face will likely keep you guessing until the end. This is the type of book that makes you long for a free afternoon and a cozy fireplace. A great mystery novel.

Why you should avoid this book: In some ways the old-fashioned vibe of the book is charming (it was published in 1962), but some of it is laughably out-of-date, like the stigmatized single mother, or the detective that seems to have all the time in the world to wait for the case to break. On occasion James’ sentences don’t quite flow, but the larger annoyance is that the editors missed a ridiculous number of typos.

Opening paragraph:

Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale Mrs. Maxie gave a dinner party. Years later, when the trial was a half-forgotten scandal and the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers, Eleanor Maxie looked back on that spring evening as the opening scene of tragedy. Memory, selective and perverse, invested what had been a perfectly ordinary dinner-party with an aura of foreboding and unease. It became, in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder. In fact not all the suspects had been present. Felix Hearne, for one, was not at Martingale that week-end. Yet, in her memory, he too sat at Mrs. Maxie’s table, watching with amused, sardonic eyes the opening antics of the players.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Have you really knocked hard?’ she inquired. Martha hesitated. Mrs. Maxie knew what that meant. Martha had not chosen to knock very hard. It was suiting her purpose better to let Sally oversleep. Mrs. Maxie, after her broken night, found this pettiness too much to bear.
‘You had better try again,’ she said shortly. ‘Sally had a busy day yesterday as we all did. People don’t oversleep without reason.’
Catherine opened her mouth as if to make some comment, thought better of it, and bent her head over her tea.

Within two minutes Martha was back and, this time, there was no doubt of it. Anxiety had conquered irritation and there was something very like panic in her voice.
‘I can’t make her hear me. The baby’s awake. He’s whimpering in there. I can’t make Sally hear!’

‘Please, I have to have the name. I’m being trained for a house parlourmaid.’ She hovered in desperate persistence, torn between fear of Miss Liddell’s censure and embarrassment at being in the same room as two strange men, and both of them policemen at that.
Dalgliesh handed her his card. ‘Just give her this then. That will be even more proper and correct. And don’t worry. You’ll make a very nice parlourmaid. Nowadays they’re prized above rubies you know.’
‘Not saddled with an illegitimate kid, they aren’t,’ said Sergeant Martin as the slight figure disappeared through the door with what might have been a whispered ‘Thank you.’

Also recommended: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; The Sign of the Book by John Dunning; Chopping Spree by Diane Mott Davidson.

Also by this author: The Murder Room; Death in Holy Orders; A Mind to Murder; Unnatural Causes; Shroud for a Nightingale; An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; The Black Tower; Death of an Expert Witness; Innocent Blood; The Skull Beneath the Skin; A Taste for Death; Devices and Desires; The Children of Men; Original Sin; A Certain Justice; The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811; Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Items P.D. James always keeps on her desk?
– dictionary and a thesaurus
– a pad of lined A4 paper
– a collection of ball point pens with black ink

Would I read more by this author? Yes; I’ve already started Original Sin, in fact.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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