Lady Antonia Fraser | Critical Review by P. D. James

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Lady Antonia Fraser.
This section contains 555 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by P. D. James

SOURCE: "Nunnery Whodunnery," in Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1977, p. 644.

In the following review of Quiet as a Nun, James comments on Fraser's handling of the elements of crime fiction.

Antonia Fraser is the latest recruit to the ranks of established writers who have turned their hands to crime fiction. "And when are you going to write a serious work?" crime novelists are always being asked; it would be nice to think that the question may now be reversed. Lady Antonia has chosen to describe Quiet as a Nun, a judicious mixture of puzzle, excitement and terror, as a thriller, and the setting has, indeed, all the Gothic horrors reminiscent of much earlier excursions in the genre: Catherine Morland would have relished it.

"And is it horrid, are you sure that it is horrid?" Yes, indeed, very satisfyingly horrid, but with a modern heroine well equipped to cope, with its perils, rational if not spiritual, both above and under ground. Every detective writer knows the advantage of a closed community for the convenient containment of victim, villain and suspects—and what more closed than a convent? Lady Antonia is not the first crime writer to make use of it as a setting—Gladys Mitchell, in particular, has done so twice with conspicuous success—but she moves with confidence in what to most of us is an alien and vaguely disquieting world. Her nuns may all look like black crows, but their characters are nicely differentiated: the formidable Mother Ancilla who apparently believes that God is chiefly preoccupied with preserving the lineage of ancient Catholic families; Sister Elizabeth who thanks Our Blessed Lord on her knees for making Wordsworth write The Prelude at such length.

Lady Antonia's detective, Jemima Shore, is, as her name suggests, a contemporary heroine, a successful television investigator, liberated, prosperous, unencumbered with husband or child, and with all the fashionable accoutrements of success including a married lover. It is when his activities as an MP cause the postponement of the holiday they had planned to take together that she decides to respond to a call for help from Mother Ancilla Curtis, Superior of Blessed Eleanor's Convent in Sussex where Jemima was a pupil during the war. One of the nuns, Sister Miriam, has been found dead in a tower on the edge of the convent grounds. The coroner has been critical; the country folk are suspicious; antipopery is raising its head. Sister Miriam (then the very rich Rosabelle Powerstock) was at school with Jemima and thought of her as a friend. But Mother Ancilla has a particular reason, apart from this briefly shared girlhood, for calling in Jemima, vaguely Protestant unbeliever though she is. And as her investigation into Sister Miriam's death proceeds, Jemima realizes that the old convent world of her schooldays and the new brash world of Megalith Television are dangerously linked.

The crime writer with a nonprofessional investigator must circumvent that awkward moment when the reader is liable to ask why the police were not called in. There was one such moment in Quiet as a Nun—but I may be partisanly overoptimistic about the ability of the Sussex Constabulary to stand up to Mother Ancilla. Quiet as a Nun is written with humour and sympathy and has a heroine of whom happily it is promised that we shall know more.

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This section contains 555 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by P. D. James
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