The Mystery of the Identical Dress

the book:

Cover Her Face by PD James

published 1962  chapter 3

[The village fete is taking place at the home of the Maxie family, local grandees. Deborah is the daughter of the house, Catherine is a friend, Sally is the hired help - the house parlour-maid.]

 The concentration of noise was so great that a sudden break in the clatter of voices seems to Catherine as if a total silence had fallen. Only afterwards did she realize that not everybody had stopped talking, that not every head was turned to where Sally had come into the [tea]tent by the opposite entrance, Sally in a white dress with a low boat-shaped neckline and a skirt of swirling pleats, identical with the one Deborah was wearing, Sally with a green cummerbund which was a replica of the one round Deborah’s waist, and with green ear-rings gleaming on each side of flushed cheeks.

 Catherine felt her own cheeks redden, and could not help her quick inquiring glance at Deborah… ‘How dare she?’ she muttered... ‘It’s a deliberate insult.’

 Deborah gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. ‘Oh I don’t know. What does it matter? Presumably the poor little devil is getting a kick out of her gesture and it isn’t hurting me.’

 ‘Where did she get the dress from?’

 ‘The same place as I did, I imagine. The name’s inside. It isn’t a model or anything like that. Anyone could buy it who took the trouble to find it. Sally must have thought it worth the trouble.’

observations: Back in 1962, PD James books were very different from the later versions. This, her first, was a classic village novel, set in a world that must have seemed a bit unreal even then: shortly after this the matriarchal Mrs Maxie is going to say ‘Sally you had better change back into your uniform.’ And Sally will say ‘Would that be appropriate, madam, for the girl your son has asked to marry him?’ Consternation. And murder will follow. But this is no Patricia Wentworth book. The setting is conventional, but the bitterness and hate in the book are very strange, and elitism and snobbery abound – not particularly with authorial disapproval.

But the really blessed thing about it is that it is a good, sour, short read. Later PD James books – and we know this is an unpopular opinion – are far too long, as she tries to show a whole world, and to give every passing dreary thought of Adam Dalgliesh a level of attention that James Joyce would have balked at. This book, and Shroud for a Nightingale, are much better.

Links up with: snobbish village life, and dresses, featured in
this entry. A murder story with toffs in the village here . White dresses feature here and here. The title comes from the play The Duchess of Malfi, a performance of which featured in this book.

The photograph is of Betty Ford in 1962, from the
US National Archives.


  1. What a terrific choice of scene! And of course, Adam Dalgliesh is a terrific protagonist. It is interesting isn't it that James' novels have evolved over the years into longer, more detailed stories.

  2. 'Cover her face' isn't my favourite PD James but I do like the structure of the book. 'Shroud for a Nightingale' is much better and a book I could read over and over again. Great photo!

  3. By coincidence, I'm halfway through Devices and Desires, one of the longer books from the mid-80s. I think I share your unpopular opinion, of which more later...

    My first thought was that the picture was of the young P D James.

  4. ACtually that photo does look like PD James, that must have been subconscious! Don't suppose she and Betty Ford are often bracketed together. I think Shroud for a Nightingale is my favourite too - I have read it many times.

  5. I think Shroud for a Nightingale is the best of all P.D. James' books. Oh the horror of attending in the same dress as someone else, no wonder there was a murder!

    1. I must re-read Shroud, and do a blog entry on it - an old-fashioned nurses uniform probably!


Post a Comment