Reading group: A Taste for Death by PD James is our book for August

·3-min read

A Taste for Death by PD James has won our vote and will be our reading group choice for this month.

That’s good news. James’s 1986 novel is considered one of her finest, and contains many of her classic tropes: Anglicanism, religious doubt, troubled Tories and involved discussions of what makes good and bad coffee. There are fantastic descriptions of London, from high church architecture to the mud and slick of dingy canal towpaths, via grace and favour apartments and rundown social housing.

And then, there are what James called “the four L’s of murder: Love, Lust, Loathing and Lucre”. It starts when a “65-year-old spinster” stumbles across “horror itself”, two bodies in a church vestry: “Their throats had been cut and they lay like butchered animals in a waste of blood.” After more meticulously detailed and bracingly horrific description, James plunges us into the moral quagmire with her famous detective Adam Dalgliesh. He is soon probing into the lives of unhappily privileged aristocracy and equally unfortunate down and outs with his usual careful panache. He is professional, careful, respectful, and quietly furious. Confident in his job, but full of self-doubt; both proud and worried about his sideline in poetry.

Talking of poetry, the title is taken from a short poem by AE Housman:

Some can gaze and not be sick,
But I could never learn the trick.
There’s this to say for blood and breath,
They give a man a taste for death.

It won’t surprise James aficionados that there are plenty more literary references, taking in Philip Larkin, Barbara Pym, Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton and William Shakespeare. More to the point, A Taste for Death sounds like a fine work of literature in itself. It won the Silver Dagger award for crime writing. A review in the Observer described it as “meticulous in detail and nuance, scrupulously playing fair with the reader, straining at the normal confines of the genre as [James] twitches the curtain aside on heredities, dilemmas and an assortment of bleak spiritual interiors.” The New York Times said, “Ms James is simply a wonderful writer.”

That sounds like recommendation enough. I’m looking forward to digging in deeper. I hope you’ll join me. As an added inducement, thanks to Faber we have five copies of A Taste for Death to give to the first five people from the UK to post “I want a copy, please”, along with a nice, constructive thought in the comments. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to post, email the lovely people on, with your address and your account username so they can track you down.

One more note. This month’s vote was a close run thing and because it feels so relevant at the moment, it might also be interesting to look at James’s dystopian classic The Children of Men towards the end of the month. But let’s see how we get on with A Taste for Death first.

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