AS HE neared the house, down the quiet autumnal streets of Holland Park in west London, Commander Adam Dalgliesh felt a shiver of apprehension. It was the same slightly nervous curiosity he experienced when entering a country church, pushing at the heavy door to find darkness, sweet with incense, that filled nave and chancel but also held, at its heart, a mystery. That was, he knew, an analogy his creator P.D. James would relish.
The season was her favourite, when the light faded early and council leaf-carts lurked like tumbrels in the parks between the borders of brown, withered plants. Her Regency house stood white and elegant among the almost leafless trees. He rang the bell, noticing as he did so that every lower window was criss-crossed with a metal grille. This world-famous author of 18 murder mysteries evidently feared for her own security. The warmth of her welcome, too, was preceded by the sound of a key turning several times in the lock.
Greetings exchanged, she led him to the drawing room for tea and shortbread. The room was as elegant as the house, white woodwork contrasting with sage-green walls and comfortably upholstered chairs in a William Morris pattern. Framed photographs showed her with George and Barbara Bush and in her ermine-trimmed robes at the House of Lords, where since 1991 she was an energetic member. A walnut cabinet housed her collection of Staffordshire figures, and one bookcase held a complete set of “Notable British Trials”. He looked for the first editions of Jane Austen, her favourite author, whose work she had happily imitated in 2011 in “Death Comes to Pemberley”. But then he turned his detective’s attention to the woman herself.
She sat upright, small and spry, with no need for the stick that rested by her side. Her hands, folded in her lap, were strongly veined, almost tough. An Indian silk scarf was carefully draped around a scrawny neck. She wore a heavy pendant and a large ring, each of which appeared to be a Victorian memento mori. From beneath her silver hair she gazed at him with an expression that combined intelligence, good humour and, vitally, detachment. These were eyes that could look unflinchingly on the corrugated pipes in a slit throat, on the gooseflesh of rigor mortis and on the strangely colourful coils and pouches pulled from the human abdomen during a post mortem. She had worked, after all, for some years in the forensics department at the Home Office. Long before that, too, she had been fascinated by death, looking for drowned corpses on the way to school and wondering whether Humpty Dumpty really fell, or was pushed. She had often noticed, as Dalgliesh had, an expression of faint surprise on the faces of the dead.
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A marvelous author, if you haven’t read her, I HIGHLY recommend her!