Cover Her Face, by P.D. James

As P.D. James, the most successful if not the best living British mystery author, approaches her 89th birthday on Aug. 3, here’s a tribute to her long career and a look back to her first book, Cover Her Face, which was published in 1962.
Cover Her Face was the first of James’ 14 novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, a moody widower, part-time poet, full-time police detective.
I’ve read most of the Dalgliesh mysteries, though in no particular order. And I just got around to Cover Her Face after picking up the paperback in a used book store last month.
In this one, Sally Judd, a young unwed mother working as a maid for an English family, is found strangled and apparently drugged on the morning after announcing to her employers and their dinner guests that the family’s oldest son has asked her to marry him – and relishing in the impact the revelation has on her class-conscious audience.
The cast of suspects eventually includes everyone in the house but for the master, who is bed-ridden, unaware of his surroundings and near death. The matron of the nearby home of unwed mothers, who recommended Sally for the job with the family, is appalled that Sally has betrayed her trust by becoming involved with a member of the family.
The potential groom’s sister can’t stand the thought of having to accept Sally as an equal in the house. The sister’s boyfriend, who would do anything for her, is a veteran of the French resistance who readily admits having killed two women during the war.
The mother is convinced the marriage will be a horrible mistake for her son. Another guest at the dinner that night is a woman who has long hoped to marry the son herself. The cook has jealously resented Sally as a rival for service to the family. There also is a nearby university student whose affection Sally has manipulated to achieve her own aims and an uncle whom she was attempting to blackmail.
Sally, we learn, enjoys misleading people about her affections, intentions and loyalties and has much to keep secret.
Of course, Dalgliesh, a detective chief inspector with Scotland Yard, unravels it all.
I enjoyed going back to read this first of James’ novels. James’ apparently is still going strong. The 14th Dalgliesh mystery, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. Over the course of those 14 books, Dalgliesh goes through an assortment of partners and rises from a detective chief inspector to a commander, in charge of a unit to which politically sensitive investigations are assigned.
James worked as a civil servant, for the National Health Service and the police and criminal law division of the Home Office before becoming a full-time writer in 1979, at age 59, after eight of her books had been published and 17 years after Cover Her Face was published.
James’ resume also includes two mysteries featuring a private detective named Cordelia Gray and five other books, including The Children of Men, in which James breaks completely from the mystery genre with a tale of a bleak, apparently hopeless feature in which the human race is slowly dying off because of mass sterility of unknown cause. Children of Men was made into a movie starring Clive Owen in 2006.
Trivia: P.D. James’ real name is Phyllis Dorothy James. (I wonder if she had to shorten her name to initials of uncertain gender because her publisher thought it unlikely male readers would buy murder mysteries written by a woman?)

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