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Too Little Mystery in The Murder Room
on 21 June 2004
Seldom has such wonderful writing been attached to such an unmysterious mystery. I found myself wishing that Ms. James had skipped the mystery and just written a novel about the characters. The result would undoubtedly have been much more satisfying.
Commander Adam Dalgliesh finds himself unexpectedly invited to visit an oddball museum, the Dupayne, which specializes in England between the two world wars. The founder has provided rare first editions of top novelists and representative paintings by the better artists of the time. Maintained as a private institution by the founder's children, the museum's most popular feature is the Murder Room, where the most infamous murders of the period are displayed. There's tension in the family though, as one of the children wants to have the museum closed.
Soon thereafter, Dalgliesh has to call off a date with delicious Emma Lavenham, whom he met in Death in Holy Orders, to begin investigating a suspicious death at the Dupayne. MI5 wants to protect one of its own from being discovered so sensitivity is needed. Everyone on the team is quickly struck the resemblance of the crime to one that is featured in the Murder Room. What's the connection? Is there a copy cat at work here?
The book's greatest strength is its powerful description of the Dupayne and those who serve it. You will feel like you have been to the museum and met the people there. The book has an extended beginning that gives you more than the usual detail about the most important characters. I felt like I had been invited to tea with them, and had a chance to settle into the story at a very leisurely pace. Of the major characters, both Ms. Tally Clutton, the housekeeper, and Dr. Neville Dupayne, son of the museum's founder, were quite memorable and convincing. Although the other major characters received a fair amount of attention, they did not come alive for me. Several minor characters received loving attention from Ms. James. I found myself wishing that their story lines had been more important.
The mystery is vastly too easy to solve. You can start from any one of six or seven different directions, and come to the right conclusion.
I found myself wondering why anyone would have written such an obvious mystery. A police procedural would have been a better structure for this story. The only reward for finishing the last five-eighths of the book is to find out a number of secrets and how Dalgliesh makes up for the broken date with Emma.
I certainly enjoyed the book, but it is the least favorite of mine within the Adam Dalgleish series of mysteries.
After finishing the book, I thought about whether anyone would have enjoyed Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None if the murderer had been apparent after the first death. I think not.