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A Taste for Death by P. D. James (Knopf: $18.95; 459 pp.) : Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell (Pantheon: $15.95; 272 pp.)

November 30, 1986|Charles Champlin

In puzzle stories, crimes tend to have taken place and are then re-created in endless rehashes, leading to a denouement that is as orderly as a sit-down dinner.

In both Rendell and James, things still happen. In James, the child who knows too much is endangered; the vicar grapples with an intruder in the dark church, the culprit holds a room at bay. In Rendell, there is a last fateful, bloody charade, madness in full command, whipping through the preliminaries to a last confrontation.

The Rendell, I think, is much the better book: well-paced, well-written, original and startling, engrossing in its examination of a character at once hateful and pitiable.

Glorious as the texturing of "A Taste of Death" is, there is the ultimate sense that it hides a rather banal little mystery, complicated in its details yet in its motivations and its solution as superficial as any in the melodramas that "Perry Mason" churned out on television week after week. The politician is an interesting figure about whom a "straight" novel could certainly have been written. It's a shame we didn't get to know him in life.

The line between the crime story and the straight novel is never hard and straight, and the best crime writers leave an indelible picture of their moment in time, as writers as different as Margery Allingham and Raymond Chandler have, and as Rendell and James certainly do. Dame Agatha's vicarages and house parties are a very long way away.

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