Easier to admire than to like, this was the fourth in PD James’ series featuring her detective, Adam Dalgliesh. It is set in a nursing school and, at considerable length and in great detail, anatomises the lives of the female students and teachers and the buried secret that will result in four deaths.

“For God’s sake don’t start being sentimental about death. The indignity is that we die at all, not what happens to our bodies”

I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey; Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today coralled by Todd Mason over at his blog, Sweet Freedom.

Nightingale House Training School is a gloomy Victorian pile set in a secluded part of John Carpendar Hospital on the Sussex/Hampshire border. The matron, Mary Tailor, rules over it with great intelligence, but she has a lot to put up with. Beyond the petty jealousies and in-fighting among her staff – most notably the rigid Sister Brumfett, the bitter Sister Gearing and the lovelorn Sister Rolfe – there is the titanic arrogance of the surgeon, Stephen Courtney-Briggs. In addition there are some distinctly unpleasant recruits among the students, most notably Heather Pearce, whose holier-than-thou stance masks and envious blackmailer desperate to use any means to obtain power over the other students. There are thus plenty of suspects when she dies in a horrible fashion when poison is added to the intra-gastric tube that was inserted through her nostril and into her stomach during a class demonstration. When another student, Jo Fallon, dies the next day after sipping a poisoned glass of whisky in her bath, Dalgliesh is called in to take over the investigation.

“What have you done with that handsome sergeant of your’s? I thought policemen went around in pairs like nuns”


When Pearce’s unsavoury background comes to light, together with the fact that Fallon was pregnant, many conclude that one killed the other and then committed suicide. But what about Dettinger, the patient Pearce nursed and who has since died – but not before claiming to have uncovered a nasty secret at the hospital? Dorothy l. Sayers and Jane Austen are both major influences on James and the attention to physical detail and fascination with social customs and mores are certainly ever-present. Having said that, the characters, though always drawn with clarity and realism, are all a pretty unpleasant bunch with the exception of Taylor, who shines through and comes to dominate the story as it becomes clear that Dalgliesh has taken a bit of a shine to her. The book was a bit slow and at 300 pages of fairly small type seemed a bit too long, especially because the characters are not especially edifying, though the work atmosphere is brilliantly conveyed. The plotting is also fairly strong, though James’ killers are not usually hard to spot when you recognise the recurring pattern (shall say no more …) But then this is not one of those books where the resolution and the identity of the murderer are the same thing or come right at the end. James is much more interested in character, and this does mostly pay off, though I was left a bit ambivalent about her portrayal of several lesbian characters – having said that, one has to say that it is a pretty misanthropic worldview that is applied to all the characters.

“I expected you back two hours ago sergeant. Where were you doing?
“Extracting information by unorthodox means, sir”
“You look as if the unorthodox means have been used on you”

There is also a fairly bizarre and extended sequence in which Dalgliesh’s sergeant, Masterson, spends a whole chapter trying to get some crucial information out of Dettinger’s sister and to do so has to take part in a ballroom competition, all on the spur of the moment. This is meant to be comical, and is to a degree, but it is also a very long sequence, extended well beyond its natural limits really. Unsurprisingly, this was heavily pruned in its TV adaptation, even though it actually expanded the book in most other areas.51YSJVDNm-L

The Adam Dalgliesh TV series

Roy Marsden starred as Dalgliesh in the first 10 adaptations

  • Death of an Expert Witness (1983) – 7 part serial
  • Shroud for a Nightingale (1984) – 5 part serial
  • Cover Her Face (1985) – 6 part serial
  • The Black Tower (1985) – 5 part serial
  • A Taste for Death (1988) – 6 part serial
  • Devices and Desires (1991) – 6 part serial
  • Unnatural Causes (1993) – 2-hour TV Movie
  • A Mind to Murder (1995) – 2-hour TV Movie
  • Original Sin (1997) – 3 part serial
  • A Certain Justice (1998) – 3 part serial
  • Death in Holy Orders (2003) – 2 part serial with Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh
  • The Murder Room (2005) – 2 part serial with Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh

In adapting the book for television, Robin Chapman overhauls the narrative in several places, most notably changing Dettinger to an arms dealer who is already being investigated by Dalgliesh, so he is brought on the scene much earlier and that way he can witness the death of Pearce. The role of the sergeant is also amended – in the book Masterson doesn’t really like Dalgiesh very much and is somewhat competitive and even has a one-night stand with one of the nurses. For the TV version he was replaced with Massingham, continuing the role played by John Vine in the previous adaptation in the series Death of An Expert Witness (one of my favourite James books and adaptations in fact). Chapman also expands the part of the story dealing with Fallon and her dilemma about the pregnancy. Thus her death happens much later, providing a good climax at the end of episode 2 . It also does what most such adaptations do by putting everything in the active tense as it were and presenting events as they happen chronologically rather than have them told in flashback, which is how the book mainly operates as the investigation only really starts after the first two deaths.

Shot entirely on location and on video, the style is as slow and studied as the book but is none the less a bit punchier as befits the medium, though the final episode, which expanded the running time from 60 to 90 minutes, slows down just like the book to spend a lot of time detailing the fate of one character. Really worth getting, though the style will seem a bit old-fashioned to many I would imagine – but Marsden is great in the role (much more suitable than Martin Shaw, who took over the role for the later films made by the BBC). And then there is the fine theme music by Richard Harvey too …

DVD Availability: This serial is available singly and as part of a massive box set that brings together all the Marsden serials, The Adam Dalgliesh Collection, which is certainly good value if you are a fan.

Shroud for a Nightingale (1984)
Director: John Gorrie
Producer: John Rosenberg
Screenplay: Robin Chapman
Cinematography: Geoff Greenleaf, Trevor Vaisey
Art Direction: Jon Pusey
Music: Richard Harvey
Cast: Roy Marsden, John Vine (as DS John Massingham), Sheila Allen, Liz Frazer, Joss Ackland, Thelma Whiteley, Andree Evans, John Pennington, Rosalyn Elvin, Judi Maynard
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘animal in the title’ category:


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, England, PD James. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to SHROUD FOR A NIGHTINGALE (1971) by PD James

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Thanks for a thoughtful and candid review, as ever. I like the way you put that: Easier to admire than to like…. That really does describe some of James’ novels and I think this is one of them. James at her weakest is better than lots of people at their best, but some of the books are a little overlong. Interesting too how you mention the interactions among some unpleasant characters. I think she does those interactions rather well. But even so, it’s hard to like some of the people she’s written about.

    • Thanks Margot – I think her seriousness and investment in the characters always comes through – but as she has never been all that prolific I suppose inevitably they can be a bit long. I did enjoy reading this again.

  2. Colin says:

    I never really got into James’ work – I saw bits and pieces of a few adaptations and only read one book, A Mind to Murder. I think I have a copy of The Black Tower knocking round someplace but left it unread since the earlier novel failed to grab me.

    • Black Tower is a much better book actually, and ultra-typical James, so if you ever feel the urge that would be a good place to start again, though Death of an Expert Witness and Taste for Death are my favourites. I really liked the first half dozen or so of the Marsden films, up to Devices and Desires, but after that they switched to film and, more worryingly, changed his toupee and it looked as though he had a badger glued to his head! I mean, look at this:

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    I read one book by this author (I do not remember which) but did not like it and hence decided not to read any more of her books.

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    I went through a P D James phase early on and really enjoyed her books. But I haven’t read one for ages. I wonder how I’d feel about them now? (Oh, for world enough and time to reread….) Excellent review, as always, Sergio.

    • Thanks Bev – well, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I can’t really remember a book (which happens a lot now) then it doesn’t count as re-reading … 🙂

  5. TracyK says:

    I liked most of the earlier novels, but the later ones (The Lighthouse, The Private Patient) have disappointed me.I haven’t seen any of the adaptations. I have the ones with Martin Shaw but have not watched them. Thanks for the review and the reminder. The earlier novels I have already reread once, so I probably won’t go back and try them again.

    • Fair enough TracyK – I think some of the early TV adaptations are really worth watching if you are in the mood for something fairly discursive and character-driven without much int he way of action!

  6. I’ve only read one or two James novels and never warmed to her – no idea which books as it was a long time ago. Maybe I’ll try one of your recommendations when I have a breather.

    • Would love to know what you make of her – hers is a style that certainly now seems to belong to another age and yet at the time she was considered a modernising figure – she seems to have fared less well than say Rendell on the blogosphere, that’s for sure – but DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS is one I would always suggest as a good place to start.

  7. I rather liked her earlier novels, but as they got bigger and more bloated and more ridiculous to my eye I gave up on her. But Shroud for a Nightingale has always been one of my favourites – I love books set in institutions like this one, and I found the atmosphere very spooky. The murder via feeding tube has to be one of the most horrible ever. Usually I don’t like books where everyone is fairly awful, but somehow this one gets a pass with me. Agree though – hated the ludicrous ballroom dancing sequence. Also, in a hugely cringe-making moment, doesn’t Dalgliesh note that Fallon has a book of his poems on her shelf? so we all know that SHE was sensitive and intelligent. His being a leading poet really is a dire touch.
    It would be interesting to see the TV version after all this time, I must have seen it but remember very little about it.
    Great review, thanks Sergio, really took me back to this book, which I may have to re-read now. Cue pictures of nurses’ uniforms!

    • Thanks Moira – can’t wait to see the uniforms (though not Barbara Windor or hattie Jacques presumably). In the TV version they make it clear that Dalgliesh stopped writing poetry after the death fo his wife and that’s it, no details of her reading habits. I agree, not my favourite bit on the book – but then, to be fair (and I do try to be), apart from this James is not any kinder to her hero than she to anybody else, which is certainly a departure from Sayers!

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review, and like Margot I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – although I admire James’ work I don’t love it and I don’t feel the need to return to it like I do with Sayers or Christie or Allingham or McBain. Interesting!

  9. Sergio, thanks for this review which I read with interest. I’ve never had much of an exposure to P.D. James whose novels have often been within my reach but not really close enough to inspire me to read them. Time to change my perception of this widely read author.

    • Thanks Prashant – I think her time may have come and gone but she was an important innovator in her time – she also wrote CHILDREN OF MEN that became the impressive movie with Clive Owen as well as a sequel to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE called DEATH AT PERMBERLEY recently adapted for TV – in both cases I think the screen versions are superior to the books

  10. John says:

    She has a gift for creating creepy atmosphere and loathsome characters. I’ve liked most of the TV adaptations of her books. I especially liked the story of THE MURDER ROOM even though I didn’t think Martin Shaw was at all like Dalgliesh as I imagine him. I just can’t read her books these days. I attempted to read ORIGINAL SIN when it first came out and it was a chore for me. I’m not sure I finished it, but I did watch the TV movie. The only one I remember reading from beginning to end was THE BLACK TOWER because it was being hyped on TV and radio back in the 70s when it was first published. (Yes, once upon a time in the US there were TV commercials for books!) And the announcer’s voice made it sound so compelling. So very impressionable in my teen years.

    • What struck me when I read Murder Room was, as with this one and so many others, that the minute you uncovered a long-hidden secret then the one it belonged to would usually turn out to be the killer and I think it is true of far too many of her books – but the whodunit element is not the main focus of interest, admittedly. I did like Black Tower quite a bit (well, I enjoy seeing seeing crackpot religious types being tarnished quite a bit) – speaking of the good old days when books got advertised in the media, did you ever see Amazon Women of the Moon with its spoof book trailer promoting ‘1st Lady o fthe Evening’ by ‘Irving Sidney’? Hysterical:

  11. curtis evans says:

    I agree with Moira, I think this is one of her best books: good atmosphere centered on an old building, interesting (if unhappy as usual) characters, worthwhile plot and not padded with endless architecture and room interior descriptions. It does have a bit of a snobbish edge here and there (the descriptions of the items in the one nurse’s room, and the one portrayal of a working class character is unpersuasive), but the writing overall is really good. I suppose the lesbian stuff comes off as a bit dated today, but probably was pretty advanced for its time. If the one lesbian character is miserable, that’s true of most PD James characters!

    • Thanks Curtis – I think you are pretty well spot-on – and the Morag character is very much from the Sayers school of country yokelry! There are at least 5 lesbians here, but not all are miserable and in fairness the two that are in a very long-lasting relationship book-end the narrative (though James makes a point of saying their relationship us essentially ‘innocent’ presumably to avoid any suggestion of hanky panky (heaven forbid).

  12. Like other commenters, I liked P. D. James’ early works. The later, bloated works…not so much. I have the DVD box sets, but haven’t found time to watch them.

    • Really well worth watching George – and I know what you mean, my (literary and televisual) love affair with James probably ended around the time of Devices and Desires

  13. Yvette says:

    I could never get back to watching the series once the lead actor starting sporting a hair-piece. Nope. He looked ridiculous. Would Adam Dalgliesh EVER plunk such a thing on his head??? NEVER! I could’t rationalize it. So that was that.

    But the earlier episodes were watchable. I know I read a couple of the books but darn if I can remember. This one though, I do remember watching, I think, on either Netflix or youtube.

    Nasty people doing nasty things. Yup.

    • Thanks for that Yvette, though to be clear, Marsden always wore a hairpiece when playing Dalgliesh, they just changed the style of it. He didn’t wear it in other roles – it seems not to be about vanity in the least, just about what is right in the role – this is what he looked like in some of his other roles at the time (from Space 1999):
      Marsden 1999

  14. neer says:

    Though I have read quite a few of her books, James has never been a particular favourite (though I did enjoy COVER HER FACE which was the first book I read of her). I remember this book because of the very many unpleasant characters that populate it.

  15. neer says:

    Forgot to add, it’s nice to have you back Sergio. Hope you had a wonderful time with your brother and his family.

  16. Kelly says:

    PD James has often been recommended to me as similar to other writers I like, but I’ve yet to make the plunge. A lot of people are saying they “couldn’t get into” her books, which is said of a lot of my favorite things, so hearing that intrigues me rather than turns me off.

    • Hiya Kelly – good to have you back! Well, certainly her books are long and her characters often unsympathetic (or rather, often quite realistic) and the plot is not the only thing that matters – would be great to know what you make of her work – for me the litmus test is Death of an Expert Witness 🙂

  17. Jeff Flugel says:

    Welcome back, Sergio! A great piece on one of my favorite crime writers…actually, it’s more accurate to call P.D. James a novelist full stop, really. She gets into the interior life of her characters very well. I like all her Dalgliesh books to varying degrees, including this one, though it’s been ages since I read it. I watched all of the Roy Marsden TV adaptations as they aired on MYSTERY! on PBS back in the day. They are slow going in many respects but well done nevertheless and Marsden is letter perfect as Dalgliesh. Shaw is a good actor and does fine in the role later but to me, Marsden will always be Dalgliesh, just like Jeremy Brett will always be Sherlock Holmes…and when it comes to Miss Marple, it’s Joan Hickson all the way – accept no substitutes!

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