Murders present meet murders past in P.D. James’s latest harrowing, thought-provoking thriller.
Commander Adam Dalgliesh is already acquainted with the Dupayne--a museum dedicated to the interwar years, with a room celebrating the most notorious murders of that time--when he is called to investigate the killing of one of the family trustees. He soon discovers that the victim was seeking to close the museum against the wishes of the fellow trustees and the Dupayne's devoted staff. Everyone, it seems, has something to gain from the crime. When it becomes clear that the murderer has been inspired by the real-life crimes from the murder room--and is preparing to kill again--Dalgliesh knows that to solve this case he has to get into the mind of a ruthless killer.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 3, 1920
Place of Birth:Oxford, England
Education:Attended the Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 to 1937 and later took evening classes in hospital administration
Read an Excerpt
On Friday 25 October, exactly one week before the first body was discovered at the Dupayne Museum, Adam Dalgliesh visited the museum for the first time. The visit was fortuitous, the decision impulsive and he was later to look back on that afternoon as one of life’s bizarre coincidences which, although occurring more frequently than reason would expect, never fail to surprise.
He had left the Home Office building in Queen Anne’s Gate at two-thirty after a long morning meeting only briefly interrupted by the usual break for brought-in sandwiches and indifferent coffee, and was walking the short distance back to his New Scotland Yard office. He was alone; that too was fortuitous. The police representation at the meeting had been strong and Dalgliesh would normally have left with the Assistant Commissioner, but one of the Under Secretaries in the Criminal Policy Department had asked him to look in at his office to discuss a query unrelated to the morning’s business, and he walked unaccompanied. The meeting had produced the expected imposition of paperwork and as he cut through St James’s Park Underground station into Broadway he debated whether to return to his office and risk an afternoon of interruptions or to take the papers home to his Thames-side flat and work in peace.
There had been no smoking at the meeting but the room had seemed musty with spent breath and now he took pleasure in breathing fresh air, however briefly. It was a blustery day but unseasonably mild. The bunched clouds were tumbling across a sky of translucent blue and he could have imagined that this was spring except for the autumnal sea-tang of the river -- surely half imagined -- and the keenness of the buffeting wind as he came out of the station.
Seconds later he saw Conrad Ackroyd standing on the kerb at the corner of Dacre Street and glancing from left to right with that air of mingled anxiety and hope typical of a man waiting to hail a taxi. Almost immediately Ackroyd saw him and came towards him, both arms outstretched, his face beaming under a wide-brimmed hat. It was an encounter Dalgliesh couldn’t now avoid and had no real wish to. Few people were unwilling to see Conrad Ackroyd. His perpetual good humour, his interest in the minutiae of life, his love of gossip and above all his apparent agelessness were reassuring. He looked exactly the same now as he had when Dalgliesh and he had first met decades earlier. It was difficult to think of Ackroyd succumbing to serious illness or facing personal tragedy, while the news that he had died would have seemed to his friends a reversal of the natural order. Perhaps, thought Dalgliesh, that was the secret of his popularity; he gave his friends the comforting illusion that fate was beneficent. As always, he was dressed with an endearing eccentricity. The fedora hat was worn at a rakish angle, the stout little body was encased in a plaid tweed cloak patterned in purple and green. He was the only man Dalgliesh knew who wore spats. He was wearing them now.
‘Adam, lovely to see you. I wondered whether you might be in your office but I didn’t like to call. Too intimidating, my dear. I’m not sure they’d let me in, or if I’d get out if they did. I’ve been lunching at a hotel in Petty France with my brother. He comes to London once a year and always stays there. He’s a devout Roman Catholic and the hotel is convenient for Westminster Cathedral. They know him and are very tolerant.’
Tolerant of what? wondered Dalgliesh. And was Ackroyd referring to the hotel, the Cathedral, or both? He said, ‘I didn’t know you had a brother, Conrad.’
‘I hardly know it myself, we meet so seldom. He’s something of a recluse.’ He added, ‘He lives in Kidderminster,’ as if that fact explained all.
Dalgliesh was on the point of making tactful murmurings of imminent departure when his companion said, ‘I suppose, dear boy, I couldn’t bend you to my will? I want to spend a couple of hours at the Dupayne Museum in Hampstead. Why not join me? You know the Dupayne of course?’
‘I’ve heard of it but never visited.’
‘But you should, you should. It’s a fascinating place. Dedicated to the inter-war years, 1919—1938. Small but comprehensive. They have some good pictures: Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson. You’d be particularly interested in the library. First editions and some holographs and, of course, the inter-war poets. Do come.’
‘Another time, perhaps.’
‘You never manage another time, do you? But now I’ve caught you, regard it as fate. I’m sure you have your Jag tucked up somewhere in the Met’s underground garage. We can drive.’
‘You mean I can drive.’
‘And you’ll come back to Swiss Cottage for tea, won’t you? Nellie will never forgive me if you don’t.’
‘How is Nellie?’
‘Bonny, thank you. Our doctor retired last month. After twenty years together it was a sad parting. Still, his successor seems to understand our constitutions and it might be as well to have a younger man.’
Conrad and Nellie Ackroyd’s marriage was so well established that few people now bothered to wonder at its incongruity or to indulge in prurient speculation about its possible consummation. Physically they could hardly have been more different. Conrad was plump, short and dark with inquisitive bright eyes and moved as sprightly as a dancer on small nimble feet. Nellie was at least three inches taller, pale-skinned and flat-chested, and wore her fading blonde hair curled in plaits on each side of her head like earphones. Her hobby was collecting first editions of 1920s and 1930s girls’ school stories. Her collection of Angela Brazils was regarded as unique. Conrad and Nellie’s enthusiasms were their house and garden, meals -- Nellie was a superb cook -- their two Siamese cats and the indulgence of Conrad’s mild hypochondria. Conrad still owned and edited The Paternoster Review, notable for the virulence of its unsigned reviews and articles. In private life he was the kindest of Jekylls, in his editorial role an unrepentant Hyde.
A number of his friends whose wilfully overburdened lives inhibited the enjoyment of all but necessary pleasures somehow found time to take afternoon tea with the Ackroyds in their neat Edwardian villa in Swiss Cottage with its comfortable sitting-room and atmosphere of timeless indulgence. Dalgliesh was occasionally among them. The meal was a nostalgic and unhurried ritual. The delicate cups with their handles aligned, the thin brown bread and butter, bite-size cucumber sandwiches and homemade sponge and fruit cakes made their expected appearance, brought in by an elderly maid who would have been a gift to a casting agent recruiting actors for an Edwardian soap opera. To older visitors the tea brought back memories of a more leisurely age and, to all, the temporary illusion that the dangerous world was as susceptible as was this domesticity to order, reason, comfort and peace. To spend the early evening gossiping with the Ackroyds would, today, be unduly self-indulgent. All the same, Dalgliesh could see that it wouldn’t be easy to find a valid excuse for refusing to drive his friend to Hampstead. He said, ‘I’ll drive you to the Dupayne with pleasure, but I might not be able to stay if you plan a long visit.’
‘Don’t worry, dear boy. I’ll get a cab back.’
Reading Group Guide
“The Murder Room is James’s most suspenseful, atmospheric novel in years and has no shortage of surprise twists.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion about P. D. James’s The Murder Room, a story that uncovers the dark places of the human mind and the passions that lead to murder.
1. Book One is dedicated to introducing a wide array of characters, all of whom are possible suspects in the murder of Neville Dupayne. Judging from the presentation of characters here, who seems most likely to be the killer, and why?
2. Conrad Ackroyd tells Adam Dalgliesh, “You should read detective fiction. . . . Real-life murder today, apart from being commonplace and—forgive me—a little vulgar, is inhibiting of the imagination” [p. 8]. What are the implications of this joke for the novel to follow?
3. Dalgliesh’s first visit to the museum just a week before the first murder, we are told, is “one of life’s bizarre coincidences which . . . never fail to surprise” [p. 3]. What other coincidences does James introduce either to complicate or resolve the plot?
4. Like many of James’s novels, The Murder Room demonstrates a detailed interest in architecture and in historic buildings. How do these settings focus the reader’s attention, and how do ideas about the city of London enrich the novel?
5. How is the plot revealed? How does James manipulate pacing to maximum effect? Which are the most suspenseful moments?
6. The Murder Room introduces several unhappy families—the Dupayne siblings, Tally Clutton and her daughter, Muriel Godby’s family, Neville Dupayne and his daughter, among others. To what extent do these families represent the ills of contemporary society? Or are they simply examples of unsentimental realism?
7. Adam Dalgliesh is in love: “He felt as vulnerable as a boy in love for the first time. . . . Somehow he had to find the courage to risk that rejection, to accept the momentous presumption that Emma might love him” [pp. 28–29]. In The Murder Room, the hero’s personal life impinges, to some degree, on his professional life. How is the love plot—Dalgliesh’s interest in Emma Lavenham and hers in him—incorporated into the mystery plot?
8. Tally Clutton clearly has a motive for murder. The reader knows that she didn’t do it; however, since she arrived at the museum just in time to witness Neville Dupayne’s death. How seriously is she considered a suspect by Dalgliesh and his team? If there is a single character at the novel’s moral center, is she the one? Is her near-death the climax of the plot?
9. How does the novel’s epigraph, from T. S. Eliot’s World War II poem “Burnt Norton,” resonate with the story? Does the epigraph suggest that James’s larger theme is that of time—or history—and identity?
10. As the plot proceeds, is it possible to guess or deduce the killer? If so, at what point is it possible, and on what grounds?
11. Conrad Ackroyd is writing a series of articles arguing, “Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age” [p. 7]. Do the events of the story bear out Ackroyd’s theory? Or does the novel seem to prove instead that murder is the result of human emotions—like rage, resentment, or jealousy—that don’t change over time?
12. P. D. James is unusually sensitive to the difficulties of finding love, particularly for women. In The Murder Room there are several unattached women, including Kate Miskin, Tally Clutton, Muriel Godby, and Caroline Dupayne. How accurately does the conversation between Emma and her friend Clara reflect these difficulties [pp. 47–48]? How realistic is James’s portrayal of the romantic struggles of her female protagonists?
13. In The Murder Room, it seems that the contemporary world, with its cell phones, traffic jams, and so on, is unsatisfactory and even dangerous. Early on, Dalgliesh muses that a lunch at the Ackroyds’ villa gives visitors “memories of a more leisurely age and . . . the temporary illusion that the dangerous world was as susceptible as was this domesticity to order, reason, comfort and peace” [p. 6]. In what ways does Adam Dalgliesh attempt to procure comfort and peace for himself? How does he react to the stress of his profession, and does he long for another kind of life?
14. Neville Dupayne wants to close the museum because he feels strongly that people are too obsessed with the past, and therefore they neglect the problems of the present [pp. 191–92]. Is Muriel Godby obsessed with the past? How does the novel’s conclusion fit into Neville and Muriel’s worldviews?
15. Many moments in The Murder Room recall the prominence of war in characters’ memories. Emma remembers walking with her nurse to a war memorial [p. 46], David Wilkins wants to own a painting of Passchendaele as a memorial to his grandfather [p. 250], Tally remembers the bombing raid that orphaned her [p. 49], and Dalgliesh remembers his family’s gardener’s stories about his service in World War I [p. 209]. What larger point is James making about the two world wars and their impact on English life?
16. Reflecting on the investigation, Kate Miskin thinks, “A single man had died and the squad would spend days, weeks, maybe longer deciding the how and why and who. This was murder, the unique crime. The cost of the investigation wouldn’t be counted. Even if they made no arrest, the file wouldn’t be closed. And yet at any minute terrorists might rain death on thousands” [p. 133]. Why is murder considered “the unique crime,” and why is the Murder Room the most visited exhibit in the museum? Is James suggesting that something about murder is particularly disturbing and provocative?