Authors: P. D. James
“Her style is literate, her plots are complicated, her clues are abundant and fair and her solutions are intended to come as a surprise without straining credulity beyond that subtle point which is instinctively recognized and respected by addicts and practitioners alike.”
Times Literary Supplement
“The finest English crime novelist of her generation.”
The Globe and Mail
“P. D. James is one of the national treasures of British fiction. As James takes us from one life to another, her near-Dickensian scale becomes apparent.”
“P. D. James is unbeatable.”
“She is an addictive writer. P. D. James takes her place in the long line of those moralists who can tell a story as satisfying as it is complete.”
“P. D. James … writes the most lethal, erudite, people-complex novels of murder and detection since Michael Innes first began and Dorothy Sayers left us.”
A Mind to Murder
Shroud for a Nightingale
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
The Black Tower
Death of an Expert Witness
The Skull Beneath the Skin
A Taste for Death
Devices and Desires
The Children of Men
A Certain Justice
Death in Holy Orders
The Murder Room
The Private Patient
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811 (with T. A. Critchley)
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography
Talking About Detective Fiction
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 2011
Copyright © 1962 P. D. James
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 2011. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Faber and Faber, London, in 1962. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.
Vintage Canada with colophon is a registered trademark.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
James, P. D., 1920–
Cover her face / P. D. James.
Originally publ.: London : Faber and Faber, 1962.
PR6060.A56C68 2011 823′.914 C2010-902730-2
Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale, Mrs. Maxie gave a dinner-party. Years later, when the trial was a half-forgotten scandal and the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers, Eleanor Maxie looked back on that spring evening as the opening scene of tragedy. Memory, selective and perverse, invested what had been a perfectly ordinary dinner-party with an aura of foreboding and unease. It became, in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder. In fact not all the suspects had been present. Felix Hearne, for one, was not at Martingale that weekend. Yet, in her memory, he too sat at Mrs. Maxie’s table, watching with amused, sardonic eyes the opening antics of the players.
At the time, of course, the party was both ordinary and rather dull. Three of the guests, Dr. Epps, the vicar and Miss Liddell, Warden of St. Mary’s Refuge for Girls, had dined together too often to expect either novelty or stimulation from each other’s company. Catherine Bowers was unusually silent and Stephen Maxie and his sister, Deborah Riscoe, were obviously
concealing with difficulty their irritation that Stephen’s first free weekend from the hospital for over a month should have coincided with a dinner-party. Mrs. Maxie had just employed one of Miss Liddell’s unmarried mothers as house parlourmaid and the girl was waiting at table for the first time. But the air of constraint which burdened the meal could hardly have been caused by the occasional presence of Sally Jupp who placed the dishes in front of Mrs. Maxie and removed the plates with a dextrous efficiency which Miss Liddell noted with complacent approval.
It is probable that at least one of the guests was wholly happy. Bernard Hinks, the vicar of Chadfleet, was a bachelor, and any change from the nourishing but unpalatable meals produced by his housekeeping sister—who was never herself tempted away from the vicarage to dine—was a relief which left small room for the niceties of social intercourse. He was a gentle, sweet-faced man who looked older than his fifty-four years and who had a reputation for vagueness and timidity except on points of doctrine. Theology was his main, almost his sole, intellectual interest and if his parishioners could not always understand his sermons they were happy enough to accept this as sure evidence of their vicar’s erudition. It was, however, accepted in the village that you could get both advice and help from the vicarage and that, if the former were sometimes a little muddled, the latter could generally be relied upon.
To Dr. Charles Epps the dinner meant a first-class meal, a couple of charming women to talk to and a restful interlude from the trivialities of a country practice. He was a widower who had lived in Chadfleet for thirty years and knew most of his patients well enough to predict with accuracy whether they would live or die. He believed that there was little any doctor could do to influence the decision, that there was
wisdom in knowing when to die with the least inconvenience to others and distress to oneself and that much medical progress only prolonged life for a few uncomfortable months to the greater glory of the patient’s doctor. For all that, he had less stupidity and more skill than Stephen Maxie gave him credit for and few of his patients faced the inevitable before their time. He had attended Mrs. Maxie at the births of both her children and was doctor and friend to the husband in so far as Simon Maxie’s bemused brain could any longer know or appreciate friendship. Now he sat at the Maxie table and forked up chicken
with the air of a man who had earned his dinner and has no intention of being infected by other people’s moods.
“So you’ve taken Sally Jupp and her baby, Eleanor?” Dr. Epps was never inhibited from stating the obvious. “Nice young things both of them. Rather jolly for you to have a baby about the house again.”
“Let us hope Martha agrees with you,” said Mrs. Maxie dryly. “She needs help desperately, of course, but she’s very conservative. She may feel the situation more than she says.”
“She’ll get over it. Moral scruples soon give way when it’s a case of another pair of hands at the kitchen sink.” Dr. Epps dismissed Martha Bultitaft’s conscience with a wave of his podgy arm. “She’ll be eating out of the baby’s hand before long, anyway. Jimmy’s an appealing child whoever his father was.”
At this point Miss Liddell felt that the voice of experience should be heard.
“I don’t think, Doctor, that we should talk about the problem of these children too lightly. Naturally we must show Christian charity”—here Miss Liddell gave a half bow in the direction of the vicar as if acknowledging the presence of another expert
and apologizing for the intrusion into his field—“but I can’t help feeling that society as a whole is getting too soft with these girls. The moral standards of the country will continue to fall if these children are to receive more consideration than those born in wedlock. And it’s happening already! There’s many a poor, respectable mother who doesn’t get half the fussing and attention which is lavished on some of these girls.”
She looked around the table, flushed and began eating again vigorously. Well, what if they did all look surprised? It had needed saying. It was her place to say it. She glanced at the vicar as if enlisting his support but Mr. Hinks, after his first puzzled glance at her, was concentrating on his dinner. Miss Liddell, baulked of an ally, thought irritably that the dear vicar was just a little greedy over his food! Suddenly she heard Stephen Maxie speaking.
“These children are no different, surely, than any others except that we owe them more. I can’t see that their mothers are so remarkable either. After all, how many people accept in practice the moral code which they despise these girls for breaking?”
“A great many, Dr. Maxie, I assure you.” Miss Liddell, by nature of her job, was unaccustomed to opposition from the young. Stephen Maxie might be a rising young surgeon but that didn’t make him an expert on delinquent girls. “I should be horrified if I thought that some of the behaviour I have to hear about in my work was really representative of modern youth.”
“Well, as a representative of modern youth, you can take it from me that it’s not so rare that we can afford to despise the ones who’ve been found out. This girl we have seems perfectly normal and respectable to me.”
“She has a quiet and refined manner. She is quite well educated too. A grammar-school girl! I should never have
dreamed of recommending her to your mother if she weren’t a most superior type of girl for St. Mary’s. Actually, she’s an orphan, brought up by an aunt. But I hope you won’t let that play on your pity. Sally’s job is to work hard and make the most of this opportunity. The past is over and is best forgotten.”
“It must be difficult to forget the past when one has such a tangible memento of it,” said Deborah Riscoe.
Dr. Epps, irked by a conversation which was provoking bad temper and, probably, worse digestion, hastened to contribute his placebo. Unfortunately, the result was to prolong the dissension.
“She’s a good mother and a pretty girl. Probably she’ll meet some chap and get married yet. Best thing too. I can’t say I like this unmarried-mother-with-child relationship. They get too wrapped up in each other and sometimes end up in a mess psychologically. I sometimes think—terrible heresy I know, Miss Liddell—that the best thing would be to get these babies adopted into a good home from the start.”
“The child is the mother’s responsibility,” pronounced Miss Liddell. “It is her duty to keep it and care for it.”
“For sixteen years and without the help of the father?”
“Naturally we get an affiliation order, Dr. Maxie, whenever that is possible. Unfortunately Sally has been very obstinate and won’t tell us the name of the father so we are unable to help.”
“A few shillings don’t go very far these days.” Stephen Maxie seemed perversely determined to keep the subject alive. “And I suppose Sally doesn’t even get the government children’s allowance.”
“This is a Christian country, my dear brother, and the wages of sin are supposed to be death, not eight bob of the taxpayers’ money.”
Deborah had spoken under her breath but Miss Liddell had heard and felt that she had been intended to hear. Mrs. Maxie apparently felt that the time had come to intervene. At least two of her guests thought that she might well have done so earlier. It was unlike Mrs. Maxie to let anything get out of hand. “As I want to ring for Sally,” she said, “perhaps it would be as well if we changed the subject. I’m going to make myself thoroughly unpopular by asking about the church fête. I know it looks as if I’ve got you here on false pretences but we really ought to be thinking about the possible dates.” This was a subject on which all her guests could be safely voluble. By the time Sally came in the conversation was as dull, amicable and unembarrassing as even Catherine Bowers could wish.