Skull Beneath the Skin

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The avowed aim of the crime fiction genre is a quest for justice for the victims of crime. This is driven by our fears and desires. It is the moral responsibility of the detective to solve the crime, and see that moral order is restored. As humans we have an innate sense that justice must be served; the quest of the detective becomes ours as well. Murder, being the ultimate crime reflects our fear of death and our desire to see moral retribution. It is part of the human condition to understand the world around us and from this desire stems an existential anxiety and a fear of the arbitrary and inexplicable cruelty of fate. Life is fraught with moral ambiguities. Appropriately the title the skull beneath the skin refers to the fact that death is ever present lurking beneath the surface just as a skull hides beneath the face.

P.D James challenges the traditional conventions of the crime fiction genre. She clearly incorporates a combination of intuitionist, realist and hard-boiled styles of Crime fiction and even explicitly draws attention to these by intertextually referencing other crime works such as Marlowe, Webster and Shakespeare. In her novel James transforms the simplicities and crudities of the old- fashioned detective story, which usually approach the plot as an intellectual puzzle of “whodunit”, into a modern detective story concerned with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action. The classic detective story rests on the fundamental idea that “ the good will triumph and the bad will be punished”, leaving the reader with a reassurance that justice will be served. However, James’s subverted approach to the genre demonstrates realism as depicted by the moral ambiguities and the relative nature of truth. The novels unsatisfactory approach to reality is effectively utilized in her plot, which mirrors a cynical modern awareness that life is not necessarily just or fair. For example, we are morally ambiguous about Simons’ murder of...
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