Excerpt from Death In Holy Orders by P.D. James, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Death In Holy Orders

by P.D. James

Death In Holy Orders
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2001, 416 pages
    Mar 2002, 416 pages

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All that might have gained him popularity in some colleges, but not here. Everyone is snobbish about something, don't let them tell you differently, but here it isn't about money. It isn't really about family either, although you'd do better as the son of a curate than you would as the son of a pop star. I suppose what they really care about is cleverness--cleverness and good looks and wit. They like people who can make them laugh. Ronald wasn't as clever as he thought he was and he never made anyone laugh. They thought he was dull, and of course when he realized that, he became duller. I didn't say any of this to the police. What would have been the point? He was dead. Oh, and I think he was a bit of a snooper too, always wanting to know what was going on, asking questions. He didn't get much out of me. But some evenings he would turn up at the cottage and sit and talk while I knitted and listened. The students are discouraged from visiting the staff cottages except by invitation. Father Sebastian likes us to have our privacy. But I didn't mind him really. Looking back on it, I think he was lonely. Well, he wouldn't have bothered with me otherwise. And I remembered my Charlie. Charlie wasn't dull or unpopular or boring, but I like to think that if he'd ever been lonely and wanted to sit quietly and talk, there would have been someone like me to give him a welcome.

When the police arrived they asked me why I had gone looking for him on the beach. But, of course, I hadn't. About twice a week I take a solitary walk after I've had lunch, and when I set out I didn't even realize that Ronald was missing. And I wouldn't have started looking on the beach. It's difficult to think what could happen to anyone on a deserted shore. It's safe enough if you don't clamber over the groynes or walk too close to the cliffs, and there are notices about the dangers of both. All the students are warned when they first arrive about the risk of swimming alone or walking too close to the unstable cliffs.

In Miss Arbuthnot's time it was possible to get down to the beach from the house, but the encroaching sea has changed all that. Now we have to walk about a half-mile south of the college to the only place where the cliffs are low and firm enough to support some half-dozen rickety wooden steps with a handrail. Beyond this point is the darkness of Ballard's Mere, surrounded by trees and separated from the sea only by a narrow bank of shingle. Sometimes I walk as far as the mere and then turn back, but that day I went down the steps to the beach and started walking northward.

After a night of rain it was a fresh, lively day, the sky blue with scudding clouds, the tide running high. I rounded a slight promontory and saw the deserted beach stretching out before me with its narrow ridges of shingle and the dark lines of the old weed-encrusted groynes crumbling into the sea. And then, about thirty yards ahead, I saw what looked like a black bundle lying at the foot of the cliff. I hurried up to it and found a cassock, neatly folded, and beside it a brown cloak, also carefully folded. Within a few feet the cliff had slithered and tumbled and now lay in great clumps of compacted sand, tufts of grass, and stones. I knew at once what must have happened. I think I gave a little cry, and then I began scraping away at the sand. I knew a body must be buried underneath it, but it wasn't possible to know where. I remember the gritty sand under my nails and how slow my progress seemed, so that I began kicking the sand with my feet as if in anger, spraying it high so that it stung my face and got into my eyes. Then I noticed a sharp-edged spar of wood about thirty yards towards the sea. I fetched it and used it to start probing. After a few minutes it struck something soft and I knelt and began working again with my hands. Then I saw that what it had struck were two sand-encrusted buttocks, covered in fawn corduroy.

Excerpted from Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James Copyright 2001 by P. D. James chapter 1. 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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