Now that Philippa has turned eighteen, she can request that her adoption file be opened so that she can learn about her birth parents. A supremely self-confident young woman, she's applied to the Registrar General by herself, without telling her adoptive parents. Maurice Palfrey is rather famous as a writer and teacher of sociology and blessed with wealth inherited from his first wife, daughter of an earl. His second wife, formerly his secretary, is a timid woman who is only truly happy in her kitchen.
What Philippa has been told is that she the daughter of a servant from the earl's estate in Wiltshire, a parlor maid who got in trouble. Philippa even remembers being at the estate as a child, in a rose garden, and an older man coming towards her in the mellow light. From that memory she has constructed a story that her father is actually the old earl. Finally she is on the verge of finding out the truth.
I'm on a bit of a crime spree, I guess. It seems odd, if not perverse, that I should find mysteries so relaxing. It is not for the thrill of the chase, nor for the gladiator-like showdown of the detective with the criminal(s). I don't enjoy gruesome details of the horrible things people can do to each other and find lengthy descriptions of the victim's torture almost pornographic. Anyway, I don't need fiction for that, unfortunately.
With that said, I will eagerly read the most gruesome murder mysteries if the writing is good. And that's one clue as to why I like mysteries: the writing is often just so darn good. And I know pretty much what to expect from the authors I read. That alone makes reading them relaxing. I know the formulas by now for the different genres of mystery, although if the writing is good enough I only note the formulaic structure in the remotest corner of my mind. I mostly try new authors based on recommendations from others, though sometimes I'll pick something up just because it looks interesting.
And there are some writers, like P.D. James, whose every book is simply excellent. Often, as in this book, the actual crime is almost incidental to the story. One of the fascinating aspects of this book is its exploration of the long-term consequences of a crime. Other mysteries end when the crime is solved and the perpetrator arrested. Here Philippa's path gives us a taste of what happens afterwards, to the killers as well as to their family and that of the victim.
This book is about the stories we tell ourselves, not just about our personal history but about the world around us. I cannot think of a theme more pertinent to our time. Often, reading or listening to political commentators or friends with views different from mine, I wonder where they've gotten the stories they tell to explain why things are the way they are and what we should therefore do about them. Perhaps someone has given them incorrect information. Perhaps they are letting fear or desire for political power override logic. Perhaps I'm the one whose stories are mistaken. Whatever it is, the consequences for our country have been dreadful.