The book takes place in the Nightingale House, a place which instills fear in the heart of the reader right from the onset. The women in the Nightingale House learn to nurse and take care of the suffering. However, when Miss Muriel Beale, the General Nursing Council’s inspector of the Nurse Training school comes to inspect the Third year students’ teaching sessions for the day, she is instead confronted with the murder of a third year student by the name of Nurse Heather Pearce.
Before the faculty can decide whether the death is a result of a prank gone wrong, or a suicide, another death takes place, that of Josephine Fallon. The schools surgeon consultant, asks the police to look into these deaths. Enter Scotland Yard’s finest detective, Adam Dalgliesh. Along with everyone else’s character, we now have Dalgliesh’s point of view and very strong opinions about everyone. Dalgliesh follows up every clue and red herring thrown into the story. He creates a work space at the foreboding brick manor known as Nightingale House. He interviews suspects, listens to the lies spun by them and discovers relationships and discrepancies. The mystery of the murders is only revealed at the end by Dalgliesh, along with the murky side of all the suspects, doctors and nurses.
Once the culprit is revealed, we feel bad for her. But, James has a wonderful way of making the reader feel like they should have all along known who the culprit was, given the fact that there were inconsistencies in the story, and things that didn’t add up in the relationships formed by the perpetrator. From the start, the book has a thrilling feel to it. The setting, the suspects, everything says horror. Another plus point of each one of James’ novels is her wonderful use of words you do not come across every day, for instance, antiphonal (meaning to recite or sing alternately, by two groups). James’ writing is old fashioned that way, but soothing in the general sense. She wants you to focus on imaging the scene of the crime but gives you a complete description of suspects so that you can try guessing who the murderer is. In that way, as a reader we feel part of the story and Adam Dalgliesh’s sleuthing team.
What makes P. D. James’ novels masterpieces in mystery and murder, is the fact that the crimes in her book are not that of a random psychopath but are almost always personally motivated. This makes the stories all the more dark and thrilling.