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 – 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 extended 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.
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 so that 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: