The Title The significance of the title is revealed in Chapter 17 during the first serious conversation Cordelia has with her employer, Clarissa: “Death. That’s what I’m afraid of. Just death. Stupid isn’t it? I always have been: even when I was a young child. I don’t remember when it began, but I knew the facts of death before I knew the facts of life. There never was a time when I didn’t see the skull beneath the skin.” ( page 125)
James mobilises the gothic with Clarissa’s confession of irrational fear of death. This is in keeping with the gothicism achieved through the description of the castle in Chapter 9 and Cordelia’s “overwhelming conviction that her task was doomed to disaster” (page 81) Notable also is the use of foreshadowing in Clarissa’s exchange with Cordelia in Chapter 17. Clarissa is removing her makeup (symbolic of revealing herself – this exposure to the psyche of individuals is another of James’ trademarks). Ambrose will remove her makeup later in an effort to hide circumstantial evidence
The Detective The novel opens with a description of the setting of Cordelia Gray’s Detective Agency. Intertextuality operates with Cordelia’s name. Cordelia was the youngest daughter of Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the daughter with a strong moral code, unlike her other two sisters. James appropriates aspects of the hard-boiled detective in her construction of Cordelia. She is a loner. Whilst she occupies the high moral ground in her dealings with people, illustrating her ‘goodness’ James steers away from presenting this as an irritating quality by presenting it as a flaw. Cordelia loses her temper when confronted by Clarissa’s rudeness. She is not able to see her objectively. This makes her human.
Cordelia is representative of a 1980s British woman. Circumstances have meant she has taken control of her dead husband’s agency. Society is such that it is acceptable for women to run their own businesses. She is not presented to us as a high-powered or successful business woman, however. Her agency specialises in the return of stray cats to their owners Contextually, the novel was created at the time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England. She was pilloried for being a powerful woman. Her faults seem to lie in her pushy determination to be seen on equal footing with her male counterparts. Cordelia represents then the potential for women to be self-sufficient in a post sexual revolutionary world, but she is sufficiently vulnerable and not too sure of herself or successful to make her palatable to a British reading public. We are given more information about Cordelia in Chapter 7. She possesses an idependence assisted by the inheritance of her city flat from her father and her business from her now dead partner, Bernie. We see how she lives, dresses, how she approaches her detective work.
Language and Stylistic Features James displays literary flair through the use of vocabulary. She writes descriptively, using plot deviations to slow the pace. The characters appear contrived, conforming just too strongly to stereotypes (the jilted lover, the brooding teenager and so on…). James uses direct speech to bring realism to the characters. The quotes contribute an intertextuality that elevates the style and contributes to the tone of foreboding. Foreshadowing is a strong feature of the novel’s opening.
The Sidekicks Bevis and Miss Maudsley have been aligned to Shylock’s Watson. They elicit humour. They are socially on a equal footing with Cordelia…in class terms all three belong to a type of genteel poor. In Chapter one, the crime of threatening quotes from Shakespeare don’t constitute a ‘scene of the crime’ orientation. The notes foreshadow murder but the crime is a ‘modern’ one in the sense that it is stalking or harassment.
The Suspects All remaining important characters are introduced to us in the first chapter when Sir George Ralston presents Cordelia with her brief to “…protect [Clarissa] from nuisance” (page 17). They include Miss Tolgarth (Tolly) Clarissa’s dresser Simon Lessing, Clarissa’s adopted step-son Roma Lisle, Clarissa’s cousin Ivo Whittingham, friend to Clarissa and drama critic Ambrose Gorringe, host of the weekend on Courcy Island The servants, Butler, Munter, his wife and Oldfield, the boatman
Chapters 2 to 6 deal with each of the ‘suspects’ in turn. Notice how as readers we have been positioned early to see these characters as suspects. Their descriptions all convey some measure of capability to commit murder or some motive. As readers we are operating as detectives alongside the somewhat hapless Cordelia.
Chapter 2 AMBROSE GORRINGE Present owner of Courcy Island. Has spent fortune renovating the Victorian theatre in the castle. Made a fortune out of a bestseller “Autopsy” under the pseudonym A.K. Ambrose “It was fashionably long and equally fashionably voilent …dealt with an autopsy on a murder victim an had told at length the stories of all the people involved…You could…call it a crime novel with a difference…more sex, normal and abnormal…the popular family saga with the mystery.” Is James describing ‘Skull…’ here…a tongue in cheek aside from the author?
Chapter 3 Ambrose Gorringe continued and some insight into Munter’s character “veiled insolence” ( page 30). We are told about Gorringe’s collection of Victorian necrophilia and the marble cast of an arm “’The owner claimed that it was a duplicate of one of the marble limbs of the royal children at Osborne carved for Queen Victoria. This one is probably the arm of the infant Princess Royal.’ ‘Poor Vicky!...’” (Page 28) Note that foreshadowing operates here both with the arm as part of the murder and with the reference to Vicky. We will hear about another ‘Viccy’ soon.
Chapter 4 IVO WHITTINGHAM Ivo is dying of cancer. He is writing an article on the restored theatre on Courcy Island. He is a former lover of Clarissa’s. We learn he hates Clarissa and would get pleasure from seeing her ‘mental disintegration’. He could be a prime suspect as composer of the notes at this stage. He is a too obvious red herring at this point in the novel “And there would be other minor satisfactions; not the least would be watching how Clarissa Lisle was coping with her own neurosis. If this was to be his last performance there was some satisfaction in knowing that it might well be hers…he smiled at the realisation that what was most alive in him now was the capacity for mischief.” (Page 37).
Chapter 5 ROMA LISLE Roma is Clarissa’s cousin. She is introduced as a fraught character having left an unhappy career in teaching to open a bookshop which is not likely to be successful. She has a married lover. She is representative of the struggling middle class worker. She operates as a foil to Clarissa. She plans to borrow money from Clarissa representing a clear motive for a murder. We will also suspect her lover who says he cannot attend the weekend party. The woodcut she finds will reoccur later in the novel. “’What would you get if she died?’ ‘I’m not sure. About eighty thousand I think. It could be more.’ He turned away. ‘And that’s about what we’d need if I were to leave Stella, get a divorce. But Clarissa isn’t going to die just to convenience us. Twenty thousand might just save the shop. But that’s about all it would do. And why should she part with it? ‘” (page 44)
Chapter 6 SIMON LESSING Dysfunctional family relationships continue with the characterisation of Simon, an anxious teenager totally dependent on Clarissa, his stepmother for his expensive education and the indulgence of his high-blown ambitions as a musician. Foreboding intensifies through Simon’s negative ruminations about his relationship with Clarissa “He tried to recall now when the dream had faded, when things had first started to go wrong. But, apart from the first meeting, had they ever gone right? He sensed that he was worse than a failure, that he was the last of a series of failures, that earlier disappointments had reinforced her present discontent. He was beginning to dread the holidays…” (page 52)