Death of an Expert Witness feels like a classic P.D. James Dalgliesh novel- a forensic scientist with a lot of enemies is discovered murdered in the lab, and Dalgliesh is called in to find out whodunnit. The setting for this Dalgliesh outing is a private forensic lab near the small town of Ely, which is 14 miles north of Cambridge. Ely is part of England’s fenlands, which is a low-lying coastal plain similar to Holland. James’ ability to tie her mysteries to her setting is one of my favourite things about her novels, and here she is true to form- the marshy fens are dark and sparsely populated and filled with quirky characters who just want to be left alone.
The unfortunate expert witness of the title exits the novel about a fifth of the way into the novel, via a blunt object to the head in his own lab. Initially the witnesses and physical evidence is slim but Dalgliesh quickly gathers a long list of suspects, all of whom have a reason- from work feuds to family inheritances- to wish the scientist dead. As with most of her novels, we are provided with a lot of detail about all of the suspects, which is occasionally a bit tedious, especially in the beginning when the murder hasn’t occurred and you’re not sure how all these minutely described lives fit together. The upside to all the detail is a real sense of time and place- set in the late ‘70s, there are many period and place details (no internet or cellphones and lots of turtlenecks) and an exploration of themes that are more universal and unfortunately more timeless (parents thinking marriage is a better option for their teenage daughter than a STEM career; being cut out of an inheritance because of sexuality).
I liked this Dalgliesh mystery better than The Black Tower, but still find Dalgliesh hard to relate to- although maybe that’s the point? I’m starting to wonder if Dalgliesh is cold and bland so that he can be a blank slate for the reader to imagine themselves solving the crime instead.
Finally, although I read this before the murder of George Floyd and the black lives matter protests started, I have been thinking about my reading choices through a new lens as I write this review. In particular, and although this is an English police procedural, I am cognizant that it is part of a larger body of cultural representations where the police are the good guys out to solve the crimes- something that isn’t necessarily true, especially for minorities, but shores up our collective conscience that this is so. I’m also aware that this book was very white- I can’t think of a single character that wasn’t white. I think there is space for these novels (and I really, really enjoy a good detective mystery), but I also think I can (and should) expand my reading horizons. [Noting that I do have one more P.D. James in the 3-novel brick that I need to finish in aid of my Marie Kondo’ing of my bookshelves, so I have one more P.D. James reviews coming up first].
This one fits into the cbr12bingo adaptation category as Anglia Television turned it into a miniseries back in 1983.