Behind the scenes at the museum

The Murder Room

P D James <em>Faber & Faber, 371pp, £17.99</em>

IBSN 0571218210

Set in a private museum on the edge of Hampstead Heath, P D James's new novel is a powerful meditation on the weight of the past. James could not have chosen a better setting for her theme than a museum, a place that celebrates both life and death.

The Dupayne is an institution on the point of extinction. Dedicated to British life between 1919 and 1939, the museum includes galleries of paintings by Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis, a library of first editions by the major writers of the period, and a Murder Room, filled with grisly exhibits and detailed accounts of notorious crimes, each proving that murder is as revealing a part of social history as art or literature. Established by an eccentric collector determined to resist the encroachment of modern life, the museum is now the responsibility of his three children, all unable to agree on its future. When the younger son is gruesomely murdered, suspicion falls on the staff, one of whom is shown to be capable of killing repeatedly and creatively - in ways that echo the crimes on display in the Murder Room. With his remarkable nose for impend- ing disaster, Adam Dalgliesh visits the Dupayne a week before the murders begin.

Location is an integral part of every P D James novel. Fascinated by institutions - churches, hospitals, publishing houses and now museums - she evokes the tensions and alliances that underpin tight-knit communities. Her writing on architecture is exceptional, and The Murder Room is enriched by descriptions of London's parks and churches. She includes real crimes from the 1920s and 1930s (such as the killing of a prostitute in the Brighton Trunk Murder, as well as the Blazing Car Murder, in which the bigamist Alfred Rouse burned a tramp alive in an attempt to fake his own death) to create a fascinating portrait of early-20th-century Britain.

Although it links modern-day horrors with past atrocities, the novel's concerns are very much of today. The significance of a single death in an age of terrorism; the public's loss of faith in law and justice; society's failure to care for its sick, elderly and poor - all these issues are raised with insight and occasional humour as the characters try to cope with a changing world.

Sometimes the author's personal obsessions speak louder than the fiction; philosophy and plot are not as effortlessly fused as in her previous novel Death in Holy Orders. The Murder Room is not James's most riveting whodunnit - she has moved beyond the guessing games of the genre. Instead, this is a thoughtful exploration of human motivation, not just for murder but for simple acts of love and hate and faith. There are no absolute heroes or villains here, just different ways to live with a "universal grieving for the beauty, the terror and the cruelty of the world".

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