The Skull Beneath the Skin is the 3rd and final novel in the brick of a P.D. James compilation I’ve been reading. Luckily things went out on a high note as this last novel was my favourite of the three. Unlike the previous two novels (The Black Tower and Death of an Expert Witness), The Skull Beneath the Skin is a Cordelia Gray mystery (the others featured her Scotland Yard detective, Adam Dalgliesh).
The mystery in Skull Beneath the Skin kicks off after Cordelia, who runs a private detective agency, is hired to babysit an anxious actress, Clarissa Lisle. The novel echoes some of the classic ‘isolated house murder mysteries’ as the setting is a fictional private island off the Dorset coast, where a limited number of connected characters are gathered to watch a performance of the Duchess of Malfi. Clarissa is playing the Duchess, and- aiming for a comeback in her waning career- she does not want to be thrown off her game. Unfortunately for her nerves, someone has been sending her anonymous and vaguely threatening Shakespeare quotations. Although the general consensus is that there is no real threat behind the quotes, Clarissa’s husband hires Cordelia to give his wife some piece of mind. Cordelia poses as Clarissa’s secretary for the weekend of the performance and the stage is set for murder.
As with all P.D. James novels, this one is wordy- lots of character and setting description, including for the red herrings. I don’t mind all this description as I like imagining the Dorset coast (even a fictionalized version). Additionally, Cordelia is a much more sympathetic protagonist to follow and identify with than Dalgliesh- she shows a full range of emotion, makes very human mistakes and yet is brave and empathetic when it counts. Great finish to this P.D. James adventure.
As a big plus in these book bingo days, the hardcover to this one is a deep, bright red- hence I get to claim the Cbr12bingo Red square!