Departing from the Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh series that has been her main franchise, James takes a plot drawn from the world of Ross Macdonald and adorns it with a stiff upper lip and a smart summer frock. The upshot of this literary cross-dressing is a masterpiece on all counts, or at least it is up through the book’s overlong coda.
The protagonist, Cordelia Gray, is a 22-year-old orphan who knows how to grab an opportunity when it comes her way. Soon after we meet her, she discovers the suicide of her boss, a feckless private investigator based in London, and decides to take over his business. In her first case, the eminent scientist Sir Ronald Callendar asks her to find out why his son, Mark, had hung himself from a roof beam after inexplicably quitting his post as a Cambridge University student. Despite a big difference in social class, Gray identifies with Mark. She is roughly the same age as he was, and she shares with him a sense of being a castoff—a casualty of parental rejection. As part of her investigation, she even moves into the cottage where he briefly lived, and where he met his violent death. Sympathy for the victim, along with some old-fashioned sleuthing (she uses a “crime scene kit” that she inherited from her former employer, but mostly she relies on inborn cunning), lead her to surmise that the death was not a suicide.
Step by step, in a manner worthy of Lew Archer at his best, Gray uncovers a welter of family secrets. These secrets begin with the source of the rift between Mark and his father, but ultimately they touch on the mystery of paternity itself. A thrilling climax ensues, in which Gray confronts the villain and in which James weaves together the elements of individual character, physical description, and dramatic situation in a masterly fashion. So why, instead of stopping there, does James proceed with an extended “aftermath” sequence that doesn’t add much to the novel? Perhaps she’s just reluctant to let her feisty heroine go. In which case, we can hardly blame her.