Excerpt from The Murder Room by P.D. James, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Murder Room

by P.D. James

The Murder Room
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2003, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2004, 432 pages

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"I saw you at the South Bank last Saturday. You were standing by the window on Level Two looking out at the river with, I might say, a remarkably beautiful young woman."

Without looking at him, Dalgliesh said evenly, "You should have come up and been introduced."

"It did occur to me until I realized that I would be de trop. So I contented myself with looking at your two profiles—hers more than yours—with more curiosity than might have been considered polite. Was I wrong in detecting a certain constraint, or should I say restraint?"

Dalgliesh did not reply and, glancing at his face, at the sensitive hands for a second tightening on the wheel, Ackroyd thought it prudent to change the subject. He said, "I've rather given up the gossip in the Review. It isn't worth printing unless it's fresh, accurate and scurrilous, and then you risk the chance of being sued. People are so litigious. I'm trying to diversify somewhat. That's what this visit to the Dupayne is all about. I'm writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. Murder as social history, if you like. Nellie thinks I could be on to a winner with this one, Adam. She's very excited. Take the most notorious Victorian crimes, for example. They couldn't have happened in any other century. Those cluthtered claustrophobic drawing-rooms, the outward respectability, the female subservience. And divorce—if a wife could find grounds for it, which was difficult enough—made her a social pariah. No wonder the poor dears started soaking the arsenical flypapers. But those are the easiest years. The inter-war years are more interesting. They have a room at the Dupayne dedicated entirely to the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and '30s. Not, I assure you, to titillate public interest—it's not that kind of museum—but to prove my point. Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age."

He paused and looked at Dalgliesh intensely for the first time. "You're looking a little worn, dear boy. Is everything all right? You're not ill?"

"No, Conrad, I'm not ill."

"Nellie said only yesterday that we never see you. You're too busy heading that innocuously named squad set up to take over murders of a sensitive nature. ‘Sensitive nature' sounds oddly bureaucratic—how does one define a murder of an insensitive nature? Still, we all know what it means. If the Lord Chancellor is found in his robes and wig brutally battered to death on the Woolsack, call in Adam Dalgliesh."

"I trust not. Do you envisage a brutal battering while the House is sitting, no doubt with some of their Lordships looking on with satisfaction?"

"Of course not. It would happen after the House had risen."

"Then why would he be sitting on the Woolsack?"

"He would have been murdered somewhere else and the body moved. You should read detective fiction, Adam. Real-life murder today, apart from being commonplace and—forgive me—a little vulgar, is inhibiting of the imagination. Still, moving the body would be a problem. It would need considerable thought. I can see that it might not work."

Ackroyd spoke with regret. Dalgliesh wondered if his next enthusiasm would be writing detective fiction. If so, it was one that should be discouraged. Murder, real or fictional, and in any of its manifestations, was on the face of it an unlikely enthusiasm for Ackroyd. But his curiosity had always ranged widely and once seized by an idea he pursued it with the dedicated enthusiasm of a lifelong expert.

And the idea seemed likely to persist. He went on, "And isn't there a convention that no one dies in the Palace of Westminster? Don't they shove the corpse into the ambulance with indecent haste and later state that he died on the way to hospital? Now, that would create some interesting clues about the actual time of death. If it were a question of inheritance, for example, timing could be important. I've got the title, of course. Death on the Woolsack."

Excerpted from The Murder Room by P. D. James Copyright © 2003 by P.D. James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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