Book Review: The Black Tower, by P.D. James

The Black Tower, by P.D. James. Simon and Schuster Publishing. 1974 (reprinted in 2001). $16.

I cannot consider myself a true devotee of crime fiction as I yet have gaps in my reading. For instance, I have yet to read any Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. I’ve got to rectify that mess fairly soon. I’ve read plenty of Agatha Christie; grew up reading her books. And, I read the Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, and yes, even a few Nancy Drew. The older, original Nancy Drew more about crime-solving and less about being a girl.

I’m accustomed to British English. One does have to..retune one’s brain to adapt to the different writing style of British English. Also, the dated language – the book was published in 1974 – creates a sense the book was translated from another language. Like “The Millennium Trilogy” by Larsson, a few moments to train your brain to the subtle language and writing differences might be needed.

Home Office, UK

All in all I found The Black Tower, her 5th book, entertaining. For all of James experience in working in law enforcement I might expect this to be more of a procedural crime novel. Not really, it wasn’t. Maybe she was early in her days with the “Police and Criminal Law Division” of the Home Office. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office has the sort of function the Department of Justice has in the United States.

The novel is also about wheelchairs. Wheelchairs figure prominently in this crime novel. In The Black Tower, we learn wheelchairs have recently arrived conveniently appointed with a steel ring set inside the hub of the larger wheels which a person might grasp to provide their own movement. Not a page goes by without a wheelchair playing some diabolical role, their presence like the raven in a Poe tale. People get pushed around in wheelchairs. They are used to transport dead bodies. One wheelchair gets pushed from a cliff. The wheelchair probably wasn’t too pleased about becoming detached from earth, nor was the current occupant, I imagine. Probably even less amused when the wheelchair crashed upon the rocks below the precipice, feeling it’s parts go flying around. The human occupant stayed more or less intact after impact, though terminally immobile, again, much like the wheelchair. People sleep in wheelchairs, eat from wheelchairs, and get their hair brushed while residing in a wheelchair. A wheelchair plays a prominent role at the end of the novel as well, though, and not to spoil anything, the wheelchair did not solve the case.

The great reveal at the end was sort of bewildering. One is led to think crimes are committed for one reason; then, the last chapter’s revelation takes the motivation for crimes in an entirely new direction. I was left wondering if P.D. did not break one of the cardinal rules of writing crime fiction – that of dumping a completely new crime at the very end that ties all of the loose ends together. The novel was written in 1974; and, yet I don’t want to include any spoilers in case you haven’t read, but there were few, if zero, clues leading me to the final solution. I sort of like having access to the same clues as the detective, being able to piece together events and circumstances. You might be a better sleuth than I and see the resolution before it arrives.

Adam Dalgliesh (pronounced “dog-leash.” Seriously. Listen to Terry Gross’s interview with P.D. James here) is not the most interesting lead character. Kind of a bland guy, really. Somber and humorless. Sullen. Could be he is just this way in The Black Tower; he did just get released from the hospital, and he thinks he has leukemia. However, I have to think Adam’s bland temperament is nothing new in this book, though. Other than Dirk Gently, I suspect many British detectives lack wit, charm, and humor. Just an opinion.

I’ll probably read another P.D. James novel, as she is so respected within the genre.

Where can we find the action for The Black Tower? What is the setting and the environment like? So good of you to ask!

P.D. James creates a fictional place based on a real place. One of the first true locations mentioned is the village of Wareham, England. Located on the southern English coast, Wareham is north of the fictional Toynton Village.

Now, we have our bearings, so to speak, increase our scale, zoom-in, and examine a possible location for the setting of events in The Black Tower.

Note the label, “Purbeck Heritage Coast.” We won’t find this location mentioned within the story, thought James does mention the Purbeck Hills. The geography of other true and nearby places can help get us close. We also know Toynton Village must be right on the lip of the coastline. We are told the patio of the main Toynton Village building is a mere few yards from drop to the beach, in fact. Thus we can sort of guess the location of P.D.’s choosing is near. I also recommend checking the publisher’s notes. In my copy, the publisher’s notes immediately follow the publisher’s title page. At the bottom, P.D James offers her apologies to the locals living on the Purbeck Coast.

Man O’ War Cove, on the Dorset Coast, England.

The region of the Purbeck Coast, from Weymouth to Bournemouth looks amazing, at least to me. Use Google Images or Bing Images and look at some of the images online. Looks like a fantastic place on the English Channel to spend a great holiday. Lots of nearby rail lines, too.

Besides the brilliant scenery we also can understand being confined to a wheelchair seems to be death-defying even in spite of someone trying to murder people who are confined to wheelchairs. Left to their own devices, why tragedies don’t happen daily to people is beyond me. Seems like a person with mal-intent could simply just wait. I’m not trying to be funny but just look at the topography, seriously.

P.D. James also provides some other geographies. The letter Adam receives drawing him to Toynton Village contains a map. Dalgliesh’s old friend invites him, and provides a crudely drawn map “guaranteed to confuse anyone accustomed to depend on the orthodox publications of the National Survey…” (p. 15)

The National Survey is the British equivalent of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They are the primary agency for accurately mapping British land holdings, wherever they might be.


Flats near Queenhythe Road overlooking the Thames. (From Google Maps)

The last bit of geography I’m going to pass along is the neighborhood Adam Dalgliesh calls home. I’m not entirely convinced I’m in the correct location. I know Adam’s flat is on Queenhythes Road and overlooks the Thames. (p.15)

Googling “Queenhythes Road” results in “Queenhithes Road.” I’m guessing these names refer to the same stretch of road. What appear to be apartments overlooking the Thames are nearby (image center). This neighborhood is located between the Millennium Bridge and the Southwark Bridge on the north bank of the Thames River.

London is a great city; beautiful, friendly, with great beer and if you like Shepherd’s Pie, or, beef stew, you’ll do just fine. I spent a week there a few years ago and would love to go back. Take the train from Gatwick south to the coast. Spend a few days appreciating the coast. Then, take the train to Middlesbrough, then on to Edinburgh, Scotland.

Hope everyone gets plenty of good books this holiday season, tangible ones would be nice 🙂 But, reading is fundamental.


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