As soon as I finished the 1986 mystery A Taste for Death, I went online to find out if Inspector Kate Miskin would appear in any of P.D. James’s later books.

And I was heartened to see that she had a role in nearly all of the seven to come that featured Adam Dalgliesh, the police commander-poet and the central figure in most of James’s mystery books.

What happens at the end of A Taste for Death is that the crime is solved and the killer is caught in a manner that throws into question whether Kate will ever again be able to work as a police officer.

The reader knows, after 459 pages, that police work is Kate’s life in terms of finding herself and defining herself and succeeding.  A bastard whose mother died shortly after her birth, Kate was raised by her grandmother in poverty, and, like many a bright, skillful poor kid, she’s found her talents to be a way up society’s ladder.

But, now, she is shattered and unsure of what she will be able to face.  Dalgliesh thinks she is tough and will learn to cope.  But I wasn’t sure.  Hence, my internet search.

The thing is that Kate is only one of several finely detailed characters in A Taste for Death.  I was interested in all of them.

“Black, damp-smelling nothingness”

There’s Dalgliesh, of course, as the crux around which the story revolves.  But other secondary figures, like Kate, are presented, described and brought alive in James’s elegantly gritty and sturdily graceful prose — Miss Emily Wharton, a mousy 65-year-old spinster, and her chance friend, 10-year-old Darren Wilkes; Chief Inspector John Massingham, vigorous, a bit hard and in line to inherit his father’s title; and even the killer.

With the unconscious body of another victim, vulnerable and innocent, at his feet, the killer’s thoughts and feeling are richly complex:

If he had believed in a god, he would have said to him: “You shouldn’t have made it this easy.  Nothing should be this easy.”  It was very quiet in the tunnel.  He could hear the slow drip of moisture from the roof, the faint slap of the canal against the pavement edge, the clicking of his digital watch, loud as a time bomb.  The smell of the water came up to him, strong and sour. 

The two half-moons gleaming at the tunnel ends seemed suddenly very far away.  He could imagine them receding and shrinking into thin curves of light, and then fading completely, leaving him and the quietly breathing [victim] sealed up together in black, damp-smelling nothingness.

“It’s central mystery”

Another example of the complexity of James’s storytelling is her novel’s title which appears three times in the book.

The first is in the book’s epigraph from A. E. 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.”

There are any number of ways to read that.  At the moment, my sense is that blood and breath — breathing and bleeding — remind a person of their end, i.e., give a person a taste of death.

The phrase pops up again when Dalgliesh is ruminating about the police pathologist Miles Kynaston and his decision to turn his back on a promising career as a surgeon to do postmortem work because

he could no longer bear to watch human suffering….

Certainly he had a taste for death.  Nothing about it disconcerted him: its messiness, its smell, the most bizarre of its trappings.  Unlike most doctors, he saw it not as the final enemy, but as a fascinating enigma, each cadaver, which he would gaze at with the same intent look as he must once have fixed on his living patients, a new piece of evidence which might, if rightly interpreted, bring him closer to its central mystery.

“They’re all gone”

A side note:

Twice during my 32-year career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I interviewed P.D. James, a sturdy, solid woman, self-contained, her face animated, her eyes wide and filled with intelligence.  The first time was in 1998 on the occasion of the publication of her 10th Dalgliesh book A Certain Justice.

I had read the novel as I always did before talking with the author of a new book, and had prepared a range of questions to use depending on how the interview went. One that hit pay dirt was a question about what it was like to be dealing day-in and day-out as a writer with the subject of death, albeit pretend death.

James answered that, from childhood, she always been interested in death, aware of death, as ultimately unavoidable, arbitrary and uncontrollable:

“I’d see an old movie or old news things, like the funeral procession of George V, and I’d think, `Look at them. They’re dead now. They’re all gone.’ “

“Yes, yes,” I said, explaining that I had grown up with the same feelings, watching a baseball clip of Babe Ruth or looking at a photograph of a turn-of-the-century street scene and realizing that every human being there — or virtually all of them — even the children, was dead and buried.

James and I had found a common bond, and I resonated with her comment:

“In a way, we live as if death didn’t exist. We’re extremely frank about sex. Yet, we’re not frank about death at all. It’s the great unmentionable.”

One Roman Catholic school in England, she told me, responded to a survey question by stating that its goal was “to prepare the students for death.” We both laughed, and she went on to say that, in fact, it’s not such an odd answer since it means preparing students to live their lives to the fullest so that, when death comes, they’re ready.

An awareness of death, she said,

“helps you feel that each day is precious and should be lived as much as possible with joy, really. I wake up in the morning feeling it’s a privilege to find I’m here.”

So, yes, P.D. James had a taste for death.  And, I guess, I do too.

“A taste for death”

The third mention of the title in A Taste for Death comes near halfway through the novel when Kate Miskin and Dalgliesh are driving back for a meeting with one of several suspects in the deaths of two men, a vagrant named Harry Mack and Sir Paul Berowne, a baronet and recently resigned government minister.

“Did you enjoy yourself, Inspector?”

Dalgliesh’s question is, at first, startling, but Kate decides to answer it honestly:

“Yes, sir.  I liked the sense of being in control, that we were getting somewhere.  Was the question meant as a criticism, sir?”

As a reader, I couldn’t help at this and many other places to cheer for Kate who is trying to make it in a world where she — a woman from poverty and illegitimacy — is an outsider.  She shows here and many other places that she has grit and guts.

“No.  No one joins the police without getting some enjoyment out of exercising power.  No one joins the murder squad who hasn’t a taste for death.  The danger begins when the pleasure becomes an end in itself.  That’s when it’s time to think of another job.”

A taste for thought

It is part of the richness of the Dalgliesh novels that he is self-reflective enough to be able to acknowledge his “taste for death” as well as the “enjoyment out of exercising power.”

He has, like James herself, a taste for thought. 

In all of these books, he is never not thinking.  Perhaps, at times, he thinks too much. But he is a deeply contemplative person.  And, as James shows in her other characters, like Kate, Dalgliesh isn’t alone in being able to think about who he is and what he is doing and why he is doing what he’s doing.  One would imagine that his own self-reflection evokes more of the same in others.

None, though, goes as deep and as far as Dalgliesh, to dark corners and locked rooms of the psyche.

He is what brings readers like me back to these novels.  He and James herself.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

One Comment

  1. Paul Fahy April 1, 2024 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Describing someone as a bastard isn’t very nice. Easy from a distance but I doubt you would say it to somebody’s face.

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