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The Skull Beneath The Skin  
Author P. D. James
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Cordelia Gray #2
Genre(s) Mystery novel, Crime fiction
Publisher Faber and Faber
Publication date 1982
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 384 pp
ISBN ISBN 0571119611 (Hardback edition)
OCLC Number 59161851
Preceded by Death of an Expert Witness
Followed by A Taste for Death

The Skull Beneath The Skin is a 1982 detective novel by P. D. James, featuring her female private detective Cordelia Gray. The novel is set in a reconstructed Victorian castle on the fictional Courcy Island on the Dorset coast and centers around actress Clarissa Lisle who is to play John Webster's drama The Duchess of Malfi in the castle's restored theatre. It takes its title from T. S. Eliot's poem Whispers of Immortality, where Webster is famously said to be "much possessed by death" and to see "the skull beneath the skin".


Plot summary

Cordelia Gray is engaged by Sir George Ralston, a baronet and World War II hero, to accompany his wife, the acclaimed actress Clarissa Lisle, for a weekend at Courcy Castle on the island of the same name on the Dorset coast. Clarissa has been receiving thinly veiled death threats in form of quotations from plays where she played the main role.

Shortly before the performance of The Duchess of Malfi, Clarissa is brutally murdered, leaving Cordelia and the Dorset CID to deal with solving the crime. In the end, it is found that she was accidentally murdered by her step son Simon Lessing. She tried to seduce him, was rejected, so then ridiculed him. In anger, he threw a jewelry box at her. Ambrose found them like this and, because Clarissa had been blackmailing him because of his tax evasion, agreed to help Simon cover up the crime. However, Simon begins to lose control, so Ambrose does away with him too. The end of the book is one of uncertainty. No-one has been brought to justice, however Cordelia is safe, and her life, it seems, will continue on as before.


Cordelia Gray

Cordelia Gray is the heroine/detective of the story. The book is written mainly from her point of view. Cordelia is the owner of the none too successful Prydes Detective Agency (named for her old boss/mentor, Bernie Pryde, who has committed suicide and left the business to her). With business in a lull, she and her two staff members, Bevis and Miss Maudsley, have been reduced to finding missing pets, at which they are quite successful.

Cordelia is hired by Clarissa Lisle's husband, Sir George Ralston, to discover who has been sending her threatening letters. However, when Clarissa is suddenly murdered, she feels duty bound to solve the mystery of why and by whom Clarissa was killed.

Sir George Ralston

The last of Clarissa Lisle's many husbands. A former soldier, he has a 'dark' history on Courcy Island. He is "A little over sixty", conservative, well groomed, and formal. He employs Cordelia as a sop to his wife's insecurities, never suspecting that she has any serious enemies.

Clarissa Lisle

Clarissa is an actress with a long history of theatre work, especially in Shakespeare. Previously married three times, and through one of these marriages left in charge of a stepson, Simon Lessing, at the time of her death she is married to Sir George Ralston. Prior to the hiring of Cordelia, she has been receiving threatening letters, consisting of verse quotations on the theme of death and decay derived from a play she had appeared in, accompanied by a crude drawing, on untraceable paper. As a result of this intimidation campaign she is losing her nerve on stage, which threatens to jeopardise her career.

While not beautiful, she has great charisma and is described as having enormous power over men, being both seductive and manipulative. Her personality is dominating and demanding, though fragile from the onslaught of poison pen letters.

Literary significance and criticism

Nothing is more disappointing than the poor work of a good craftsman. P. D. James, hailed as Christie's successor and in some ways an abler hand at characterization, has given steady proof of her mastery of the genre. She even created in Cordelia Gray a likable and credible woman investigator. Here she brings her back, but makes her act like a bewildered maiden, though she heads a London detective agency. Besides, the plot is full of unlikelihoods, including the reason for the island setting and the crime itself.[1] - A Catalogue of Crime


  1. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8


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