The Black Tower


Author: PD James

Finished on: 4 June 2016

Where did I get this book: Part of my literary inheritance from my grandparents

I have heard PD James described as the successor to Agatha Christie’s grande dame of detective fiction crown. But despite my love for Christie’s writing, I have never tried a James before now.

When my granddad died last year, this was one of the books I chose from his house to form my inheritance (books, along with a knitted nativity set, and my granny’s old housecoat which I now wear surprisingly frequently – riches indeed).


But I have to say, if this is typical of James then she’s not a patch on Christie. And while this is an entertaining and interesting whodunit,  it is so very dated.

Don’t get me wrong, I know 1975 was a long time ago and the world was different then. But ugh. It’s not just the sexism, the racism, the homophobia and the classism that I found exhausting, it is the constant weight of snobbery and moral judgement that hangs over the whole book. And it does feel like it’s coming from the author, rather than being an intentional way  of conveying characters’ prejudices. James isn’t a detached narrator, but rather the self-cast arbiter of acceptable choices in everything from what flowers you should give an ill person to what bread you should eat.

A charming contrast to his other offerings of hothouse roses, over-large chrysanthemums shaggy as dust mops, forced spring flowers and artificial-looking gladioli

The bread had obviously been baked locally, and was not the gutless pap of some mass-produced oven

I know Christie is not immune from some pretty horrible prejudices in her books. But they’re not wearing in the same way as this. And it’s not just that Christie’s books were written longer ago, and therefore it feels less appropriate to assess them with my own sensibilities now; it’s that James’s writing is saturated with this snobbery in a way that feels like far more than just being a product of its time.

Which makes it even more hilarious when she writes sentences like

For a moment Dalgliesh believed that he was looking down on a cursed and dreadful shore on which the sun could never shine.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a bit of unashamed melodrama. But if you sneer at the bad taste of hothouse roses, but then write a sentence like that, then I will find it difficult to take you seriously.

I realise this review is sounding like a bit of a panning, and that’s not entirely fair because there is much to enjoy in this book. There is some good plotting and interesting characterisation. And there is murder. Lots of it. As an aficionado of the whodunit, I can’t entirely dislike a book that includes the following passage

Every death benefited someone, enfranchised someone, lifted a burden from someone’s shoulders, whether of responsibility, the pain of vicarious suffering or the tyranny of love. Every death was a suspicious death if one looked only at motive, just as every death, at the last, was a natural death.

And importantly The Black Tower also contains the word ‘pocketed’ which is one of my favourite words, and no book that employs it can be all bad. It’s a word that sets book-lovers apart. I will never forget the day, about four years ago, when my daughter used it in general conversation, fresh from a Blyton-fest of reading. Nobody that doesn’t read a lot of books uses the word pocketed. And at that moment I knew that my little girl had well and truly inherited one of the greatest loves of my life. Hurray!


One comment

  1. I don’t know this title but did enjoy many of her other novels. Though at the time I read them I was reading more for entertainment and didn’t concern myself too much with themes etc


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