P.D. James is an acquired taste in detective fiction- slow moving and meticulously detail oriented. Her Adam Dalgliesh novels are a detour from some of the hard-boiled noir detective fiction that is currently fashionable on TV and film. Adam is not like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole; rather, Dalgliesh he is from the ‘gentleman detective working for Scotland Yard’ mold, slowly sifting through clues without breaking the rules.
The Black Tower is the 5th Dalgliesh novel and it is set in a home for adults with disabilities, the fictional estate of Toynton Grange, on the Dorset coast southwest of London. This is one of the things I really like about P.D. James- even if Toynton Grange is fictional, the novel is very tied to the south Dorset coast, so you get a real sense of place. Dalgliesh is visiting Toynton Grange at the request of an old family friend, Father Braddely, who unfortunately dies of an apparent heart attack before Dalgliesh arrives. The disability home setting is apt, as Dalgliesh is recuperating from illness and his weakened state is mirrored in that of the patients at the home. Dalgliesh finds much to unsettle him at Toynton Grange- not only is he suspicious that Braddely’s death may not have been natural, but he discovers that there was an apparent patient suicide shortly before Braddeley’s death.
True to form, The Black Tower is a slow moving novel, and James obsessively details all of the potential suspects. In the first half of the novel, before Adam commits to thinking about the two deaths as murders, this requires a lot of reader patience. It also takes the right mood, as the details are framed in dour terms- the sea is frightening, the skies are gloomy, the estate is dark. I enjoyed this one, but it requires the right mood and the right time.