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This was my little treat to myself post exam. I think this is the last P.D. James I had to read, except for The Children of Men, which I never fancied given that science fiction isn’t really a genre I’ve ever enjoyed. I put off reading this one as it is a Cordelia Gray mystery rather than a Dalgliesh one, and I normally prefer my crime fiction to be headed up by a brooding detective rather than an amateur (except of course for when I am reading the great queen of crime fiction, Agatha Christie’s, works).

However, I had no need to have any concerns on that front as, as ever, James produced a neat gem, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction. I think that’s why she does it for me, I’ve never enjoyed the Cornwall esq crime fiction, all blood and guts and post mortems, and brutal realism. Instead I prefer the closed circle of suspects, usually isolated in some romantic spot, each with their motive and a resolution that is surprising whilst not being unbelievable.

And here James delivers. The actress Clarissa Lisle has had her nerve shaken by a succession of poison pen letters: literary quotes about death from plays she has acted in. She has one last chance to revive her career in a one-off performance in the refurbished Victorian theatre of Courcy castle, isolated on an island two miles from shore. Clarissa’s husband hires Cordelia, who is relieved to get a well-paying job that may help to keep her struggling detective agency afloat, to ‘mind’ his wife, keep any further notes away from her and discover who is sending them.

But soon the glittering romance of Courcy castle turns sinister, with the theft of a marble sculpture of the arm of one of Queen Victoria’s children as a baby, and the realisation that the play may not be able to go ahead after all…

P.D. James does it again. A carefully crafted plot, modern yet timeless, and believable characters. I think this is perhaps my most important reason for liking her. Whilst there are many mystery novels out there, set in English villages and trying to recapture the magic of the Golden Age, they often fall short. Their characterisation is trite and unbelievable, unexpected and unrealistic things are revealed about characters at the end as a way of reaching resolution, and whilst they are easy to trot through (and I often do) they are ultimately unsatisfactory.

But not P.D. James. Her characters are real and the ends, whilst obviously part of the detective fiction genre, are not strained or discordant. Given that her last novel The Private Patient showed no signs of her powers waning, despite her writing it in her late eighties, I for one wish her many further happy years of life and hope that they continue to be productive ones.

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Said to be the earliest dective/mystery novel ever published (1868) it has a strong plot line and plenty of cliff hangers to keep readers gripped (I guess because it was originally serialised). As I like Victorian prose I found this an enjoyable, and easy read. But I must admit that, despite the cliff hangers, the book failed to really grab me. It’s the kind of book you can read whilst you’re reaching the end of a bottle of wine and feel the next morning, even though your memory may be a little groggy, that you won’t need to re-read any of it.

Getting onto the story, the book is based around the diamond of the title which a British soldier has gained through bloody means in India. Indian guardians devote their life to trying to recapture the stone. The soldier bequeaths the stone to his neice, presuming it will bring diaster in its wake, as revenge for his sister’s estrangement from him. As expected the moonstone does just that, and it all gets engangled with a love story between the two main protagonists.

But the characters never seem to be fully developed, and I found it very difficult to care about any of them; although I did delight in Betteredge who was almost a Dickensian charactature with his Robinson Crusoe and his pipe.

Not as good as The Woman In White I’m afraid.