The Black Tower by P.D. James; is it Dated, or is it Me?

I just read The Black Tower by P.D. James. I thought it was a re-read for me and that I had read it at some point in the dark and distant past. I was less of sure of that after I finished it, and I decided that most likely I saw the television adaptation of it, from the 1980s, on PBS. This might explain why I was left so unsettled by the book.

The Black Tower was published in 1975. It was the fifth Adam Dalgliesh novel. The story is beautifully written, stunningly atmospheric, with the rugged cliffs and the dangerous, languorous, seductive ocean, the mist-shrouded moor, the old house, Toynton Grange, and the rustic cabins that flank it. It is also very slow, with practically no mystery until the last fifteen or twenty pages, and filled with characters who are more venomous, unpleasant and repellant than usual, even for a British mystery, even for James herself. I’m left with the metaphor of a grocery-store bakery’s chocolate icing; sweet, chocolate-like at first, but leaving the unpleasant aftertaste of chemicals.

In the opening pages, Dalgliesh is informed by his doctor that their original diagnosis of a fatal form of leukemia was incorrect. This removes a death sentence from the detective-poet’s head. Strangely, instead of energizing him, this good news has the opposite effect. Dalgliesh spent the weeks that he labored under the incorrect diagnosis “letting go” of things that no longer mattered, and he decided that his job as a homicide detective was one of those. Now he has to decide; retire, or return to work? He decides to take time to think and visit an old acquaintance, Father Badderly, his father’s curate, who has written Dalgliesh asking for his advice on a situation. Badderly is the chaplain at Toynton Grange, an old “stately home” that has been converted by Wilfred Anstey, the owner, into a facility for people with multiple sclerosis (called “DS” or disseminated sclerosis in Britain).

Sadly, when Dalgliesh arrives on the picturesquely windswept moor, he discovers that his childhood friend died of natural causes only two weeks before. Still, while is no mystery about the elderly cleric’s heart attack, there is an unpleasantness and a strangeness; Dalgliesh discovers a “poison pen” letter, and one of the residents either drove himself off the cliff in his wheelchair, or had the brakes fail and fell, only a few days before that. Neither death is questionable, and yet…

Many of the Dalgliesh books dealt with the ending of things; institutional deaths, in a way, as well as human death. Whether it’s a monastery or a publishing house, or, in this case, a home for disabled people, ends come and people are uprooted. Toynton Grange is down to six residents, and the director, Wilfred, is considering turning it over to a statewide private group. He has not completely made up his mind. Wilfred was diagnosed with MS himself, but a visit to Lourdes cured him. It was a miracle, and he takes his little band of residents to Lourdes twice a year. He is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with several able-bodied people who work at the Grange or live in the cottages, who, while being loyal to him, hold him in some contempt. All but one of the residents is an adult– Dalgliesh has to stop himself from calling them “inmates,” a term that is shockingly relevant, given the story’s treatment of people with disabilities. They all get about in wheelchairs. There is a doctor, two female nurses and one male attendant, a handyman and a philanthropist who rents the most picturesque cottage. The doctor’s booze-swilling, disloyal and dissatisfied wife also lives on the property and seems to mostly nag her husband to find a real job and get them out of the hinterlands. Because it’s James, all of the staff are socially or legally vulnerable; the doctor had his license removed years before and only recently reinstated; one of the nurses struck a patient in a previous assignment; the handyman has a jail-record. It’s not a secret, and Wilfred acts as if this is him giving people a second chance, but it means every one of them is vulnerable if the place is sold or assigned to a larger concern. Wilfred’s sister Millicent also lives on the property.

As I said, the story is atmospheric and interior, with everyone having something to hide, most people having many things to hide. I think in 1975 the inclusion of five fully developed characters, however unpleasant they were, in wheelchairs, dealing with a chronic illness, was probably innovative, and perhaps my discomfort with James’s depiction of disability shows how far we’ve come. Or maybe I’m reading it dead wrong, imposing my own biases and squeamishness on the residents, but Good Lord, that was hard to keep dealing with.

Before he even gets there Dalgliesh worries about having to interact with people whose limbs shake and whose heads might wobble. He hasn’t been exposed to the disease before, so I suppose this is actually is a fair and honest reaction for the time. The residents themselves, though, articulate self-loathing in excruciating detail. Without question, they absorb the negative judgments of the able-bodied around them. For example, Ursula married a closeted gay man (she never seems to understand that he is gay but we do) who loved to buy her hippie-style clothing and dress her up. She was life-sized doll to him, not a person, and he was physically repelled by the spread of the MS. So is Ursula, who came to Toynton Grange surprisingly early so that she wouldn’t “upset” hubby with the twitching muscles and so on. Victor Holroyd, who died in the fall from the cliffs, was a smart, bitter man who saw people’s weaknesses and only spoke to hurt. He comes back from a visit to London shortly before Father Badderly died nearly crowing with malicious triumph, and it’s clear he’s uncovered a secret he is going to use to hurt and humiliate someone. As vicious as he is, this is at least a “fight” response to the disease, badly directed though it may be.

Every one of the residents who act within the story are either bitter and vicious, or despairing. Bitterness seems like a natural reaction to a disease like MS, but people who live with this disease have other attributes as well. Midway through the book, as a counterpoint to another death, we follow Ursula’s thoughts as she painstakingly, morosely plans to take her own life. It’s probably not that long a passage but it seems to go on for days. A minor character, a young woman who was the “star” of a television documentary/expose about National Health’s treatment of people living with MS, is manipulative and cruelly backstabbing.

Two of the residents, Henry Carwardine and Grace Willson, exist in the story as more than self-pity and a collection of tics, and that’s all to the good. Henry, though, is revealed as callous, critiquing the testimony of the people at an inquest as if it were a television program for his entertainment.

Reading this post over, I realize that the residents, as a group, are not that much nastier, whinier or unpleasant than the able-bodied characters. The problem is that they are a distinguishable group with one thing in common, and they are all given similar traits. This leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

When Millicent, Wilfrid’s sister, coarsely opines to Dalgliesh that one of the residents is attracted to another character, then pronounces that they shouldn’t even think of sex once they’re in a wheelchair because to her that’s disgusting, Dalgliesh admits to himself that secretly he agrees with her. Dalgliesh is our window into the story; to see him condone that kind of comment, even internally – doesn’t that tell us that the story sees it this way too? Maybe not, but I was left floundering and confused. The problem isn’t that the disease isn’t portrayed honestly. It is, without any sentimentality or sanitizing. These people have been abandoned, though, and at times the book seems to say that this is the right thing.

I guess what it comes down to is that the book is dated; in 1975, the number of places a person in a wheelchair could even go was limited; mobility technology was nonexistent and The Black Tower captures this accurately. I’d be more comfortable if James hadn’t intentionally chosen two symbols, the Grange itself and the Grange’s folly, the Black Tower, to hammer home a sense of ugliness and distortion, as both buildings are as twisted and “deformed” as the bodies of the residents are sometimes presented. And Wilfrid’s kindly ineptitude just pours salt on the wound; he’s opened up his ugly stately home “by the sea” for people with a debilitating illness… but they cannot see the ocean from anywhere in the house. Build a glassed-in patio closer to the water, and pave a path to it? Wilfrid, beneficiary of a miracle, in his own mind a homespun saint, couldn’t quite work his way around to doing something like that. Certainly that failing is his, but the story still seems to ask, “Well, disabled people, what do you expect? Be grateful for the scraps you’ve been given.”

And yet, again… The prose. I’ll leave you with two little bits of it:

“… He came into Dalgliesh’s hospital room preceded by Sister, attended by his acolytes, already dressed for the fashionable wedding he was to grace as a guest later in the morning. He could have been the bridegroom except that he sported a red rose instead of a customary carnation. Both he and the flower looked as if they had been brought and burnished to the peak of artificial perfection, gift-wrapped in invisible foil, and immune to the chance winds, frosts and ungentle fingers which could mar more vulnerable perfections…”

This is a description of the consulting physician who gave Dalgliesh the original, wrong, death-sentence diagnosis.  The word “immune” in the middle of that passage is anything but random.

And here, Dalgliesh and the philanthropist return to the philanthropist’s cottage to find that a marble bust has been destroyed.

“Still not speaking, they moved together warily over the carpet. The head, hacked into anonymity, lay among a holocaust of marble fragments. The dark gray carpet was bejeweled with gleaming grits of stone. Broad ribbons of light from the windows and the open door lay across the room and in their rays, the jabbed slivers twinkled like a myriad of stars. It looked as if the destruction had at first been systematic… A miniature dagger of marble had lodged upright in the sofa, a microcosm of violence.”

Dalgliesh’s internal struggle with duty and doing the right thing (he arrived too late to help is childhood friend) is well-wrought, and the descriptions are beautiful. Did she get the book right? For 1975, she probably did… and we have made some progress after all. Still. The first bite is creamy, rich and sweet, but with the first swallow comes the aftertaste, chemical and unpleasant.

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