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A Reader's Guide to: P.D. James' "The Murder Room" - Plot, People, Places, and Vocabulary

Updated on July 29, 2014

The Plot

Baroness James has a devilishly creative way of portraying one of the common problems which seem to occur at various times between siblings. The setting of the story is the fictitious Dupayne Museum which was created by Max Dupayne and devoted to the interwar years (1919-1939). Due to certain legalisms in his will, his three children, Neville, Caroline, and Marcus have been left as trustees. The museum is's lease is up and all three must be in agreement as to whether to continue its operation. Conflict follows as two of the siblings are in favor of continuing operations while the third, Neville is violently opposed.

The hero of many of P.D. James' novels, Adam Dalgliesh happens by pure coincidence to have visited the museum at the beginning of the novel. His next visit will be due to a murder at the museum.

The novel incorporates the gloomy atmosphere in the years following World War I and some of the sensational murders in Britain during that period. This is intertwined with the family squabble and several victims which show up.

We leave the rest to the reader, but provide a short glossary or vocabulary to enhance your reading experience.

People, Places, and Uncommon Words

The following in alphabetical order are thumbnail sketches of the many of the people and place names referred to in the novel. The list also includes a significant number of words which are less frequently encountered in everyday speech. Baroness James has an extensive command of the English language. Often she will use a word in an imaginative context. She also seems to enjoy using literary references, archaic words, and foreign words or phrases.


accession - in general it means “adding something” such as: (in JD James' case) , an acquisition or addition of an object to a museum; (alternately defined as) consent, agreement, or approval.

accidie - (alternate spellings accedie or Acedia) - describes a state of not caring or being concerned with one's position worldly state or condition.

alacrity - cheerful readiness to comply or to do something


Hood ornament on a classic Alvis car.
Hood ornament on a classic Alvis car.

Alvis - (Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd, from 1919 to 1967 was a British car manufacturer of both consumer and military vehicles.

Almeida Theatre – a theatre with an international reputation (opened 1980), Located in London on Almeida Street, produces drama, contemporary opera, etc. It is often a launch pad for productions later transferred to London's famous West End theatres.

Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973), was born in England and later became an American citizen is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.


Barbican - Barbican Estate is a residential complex built in London during the 1960s and 1970s in an area destroyed by German bombs in World War II bombings and today densely populated by financial institutions. The Barbican is a prominent example of British “brutalist” architecture.

One of the Barbican Estates buildings.
One of the Barbican Estates buildings.

Norman Birkette - William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett, PC, QC (1883 – 1962) was a British lawyer, judge, politician and preacher who served as the alternate British judge during the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of World War II.

Brighton Trunk Murders – See Tony Mancini below.


caster (sugar) – (British) definition of what in the U.S. is known as confectioner's sugar.

cicatrice - a mark, or scar left (usually on the skin) by the healing of tissue injured by any number of things: a cut, vaccination, pockmark, callus from a bone fracture.

Duke of Clarence– (JD James' reference is specifically to) -Prince Albert Victor (1864 – 1892), was the eldest son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and the grandson of the then reigning Queen Victoria. He died before his father and his grandmother, the Queen.

cockscomb – uppermost part of part of the head of a fowl (e.g. a rooster); a flower; a jester's cap

cortege - a funeral procession of cars or people

crossbencher - is independent or minor party member of some legislatures, such as the British House of Lords. The name is derived from the seating arrangement of the legislative chamber. Crosbenchers differ from their counterparts, frontbenchers (majority party) and backbenchers (major opposition party).

curdle - to form curds; also : to congeal. (In PD James' useage “to group”.)


detrop too much or too many; excessive; superfluous.

dibber - a pointed wooden stick for making holes in the ground to facilitate planting of seeds, seedlings or small bulbs.

Dibbers are now made with modern materials. In this case plastic.
Dibbers are now made with modern materials. In this case plastic.

dichotomy – tosplit a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts.

dilettante - a dabbler; someone whose interest in an a field of study (e.g. art, music) is superficial.

disapprobation - the act or state of disapproving; condemnation.

diurnal - a term related to “day” or “daytime” as opposed to nocturnal (“nighttime”).


egregiously - outstandingly bad; blatantly bad in conduct

T.S. Eliot - Thomas S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) was an essayist, literary critic, playwright, publisher and a major twentieth century major poet. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he immigrated to England in 1914 an became a British citizen. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

England's Thousand Best Churches – a book by Simon Jenkins published in 1999, which describes in detail and illustration the best churches in England.

ennui - feeling utterly weariness or discontent from lack of interest; boredom:

eponymous - giving one's name to a company, tribe, place, etc. (e.g. Michael Dell with Dell computers).

euphemism substituting an indirect, mildly phrased, or vague expression for one that might be considered blunt, harsh, or offensive.

etiolate - the whitening or paleness of a plant due to lack of light; to drain of color or vigor.

excrescence - an outgrowth on an animal or vegetable, either considered normal (e.g. hair, horns) or abnormal (e.g. a disfigurement).

exophthalmos - a protrusion of the eyeball often caused by a disease or injury.

eyrie - the nest bird of prey e.g. eagle, hawk), built in a high inaccessible place; any high isolated place.


Marie Margaurite Fahmy (1890-1971) – shot her husband, an Egyptian prince who was reputed to be an abusive husband. Although her husband died of the wounds she inflicted, she was acquitted in 1923 due to the efforts of Barrister Hall, “The Great Defender” (see below).

florentines - cookies with fruit, nuts, and chocolate.

Gilbert Frankau (1884 – 1952) was a popular British novelist. He was known also for verse, a war poet of World War I.

frisson - a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; a thrill:

fulminate - to issue a thunderous verbal attack; to explode or detonate; to denounce.

fusty - a dusty or smelly place; moldy; very old-fashioned.


gambol - a playful skipping

Gladstone bag - a small suitcase built over a rigid frame easily separated into two equal sections generally made of stiff leather. The bags are named after William Gladstone (1809–1898), the four-time British Prime Minister.

Golden Hind or Golden Hinde was an English galleon best known for her circumnavigation of the globe between (1577- 1580), captained by Sir Francis Drake. Originally known as Pelican, renamed by Drake mid-voyage in 1578, as he prepared to enter the Strait of Magellan, to honor his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton, whose armorial crest was a golden 'hind' (a female deer).

Robert von Ranke Graves (most commonly Robert Graves) (1895 – 1985) was an English poet, scholar, translator, and writer specializing in Classical Greece and Rome. He was also a novelist and soldier in World War I. During his long life he produced more than 140 works. historical novels such as I, Claudius. He also was a prominent translator of Latin and Greek texts.

gyve - A shackle or fetter (e.g. handcuffs, leg irons)

A replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship which circumnavifated the Earth.
A replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship which circumnavifated the Earth.


Sir Edward Marshall Hall (1858 – 1927) - an English barrister who had a successfully defended many people in high profile murder cases and became known as "The Great Defender".

hieratic - pertaining to priests or the priesthood; sacerdotal; priestly. An alternate definition is one related to Egyptian writing.

Herculean - of, relating to, or characteristic of Hercules; having extraordinary powers or abilities.


incipient - beginning to develop or exist. (e.g. The incipient blooming of a flower.)

incontrovertible – indisputable; not open to questioning.

insalubrious - unclean, unhealthy, or unwholesome

insouciance - relaxed , calm, free of worry state of being.

invidious - designed to create ill will, resentment or give offense.


Jeyes Fluid - a brand of disinfectant fluid made by Jeyes Group Ltd. in England. It is intended for outdoor use only.

jodhpur - riding breeches, full cut at the his tapering at the knees to accommodate high shaft riding boots.

The victim in the Brighton Trunk Murders, Violette Kaye.
The victim in the Brighton Trunk Murders, Violette Kaye.


Violette Kaye – the victim in the Brighton Trunk Murder of 1934 committed by Tony Mancini.


Rosamond Nina Lehmann (1901 -1990) - a British novelist. Several of her novels not only received critical accaim but were filmed subsequent to her death.

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) was an English painter and author. He was a co-founder of the Vorticist movement in art, and edited the literary magazine BLAST.

lubricious - lustful; lecherous.


Frederick Louis Mac Neice (1907 – 1963) was an Irish poet and playwright.

Tony Mancini – infamous for the “trunk murder” of his girl-friend, Violette Kaye in 1934. He was found not guilty. Shortly before his death in 1976 he confessed to the crime.

Margaux - a wine produced in France which has a full-flavored bouquet and is generally expensive and sought after.

MI5 - (Military Intelligence, Section 5) - domestic counter-intelligence and security agency in the United Kingdom.

MI6 - the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in the United Kingdom which is focused on foreign threat.

MI6 Headquarters.
MI6 Headquarters.

minatory - menacing; threatening.

Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896 – 1980) was an English politician, known principally as the founder of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). He was a Member of Parliament (1918-1924), (1926-1931) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1929–31). He associated closely with Nazi Germany, was interned in 1940, and the BUF was outlawed. He was Released in 1943, he moved abroad in 1951, spending most of the rest of his life in France.


John Northcote Nash (1893 – 1977) was a British painter of landscape and still-life, wood-engraver and illustrator, particularly of botanic workNash was among the most important landscape artists of the first half of the twentieth century.s.

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter and war artist, as well as a photographer, writer and designer of applied art. He played a key role in the development of Modernism in English art. He was the older brother of the artist John Nash.

Benjamin Lauder Nicholson(1894 – 1982) was a British painter of abstract compositions, landscape and still-life


ochre -(also spelled ochre) - pale yellow or pale in color.

Edward Phillips Oppenheim (1866 –1946) was an English novelist, a successful writer of fiction including thrillers.

opprobrium - very strong disapproval or criticism; something that brings disgrace; public disgrace following grossly wrong or vicious conduct; contempt.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893 – 1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare stood in stark contrast both to the public perception of war at the time. Much of his work was published after his death.


Passchendaele - The “Third Battle of Ypres” took place on the Western Front (July-November 1917) for control of the southern and eastern ridges surrounding the city of Ypres in West Flanders (Belgium).

Representative scene of the tragedy at Passchendaele battlefield during World War I.
Representative scene of the tragedy at Passchendaele battlefield during World War I.

Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931) was a Russian prima ballerina of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. She was a principal balarina of the Imperial Russian Ballet. Pavlova is most recognized for her role, “The Dying Swan”. She became the first ballerina to tour ballet around the world.

Anna Pavlova as "The Dying Swan".
Anna Pavlova as "The Dying Swan".

Auguste Antoine Piccard (1884 – 1962) was a Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer. Beginning in May 1931, Auguste Piccard (along with Paul Kipfer) made a record breaking balloon flight reaching an a altitude of nearly 52,000 feet. He would ultimately made a total of 27 balloon flights, setting a final record of over 75,000 feet.

pedophilia - a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to children, generally age 11 years or younger.

pantile - a roofing tile with an S-shaped profile, laid in an overlapping manner.

perambulate - to walk about, stroll or roam often as a “walk through” or cursory inspection.

pilchards – sardines, small, oily fish within the herring family

Pierrot is a stock character of pantomime, that of the sad clown.

pouf - a rounded Ottoman, footstool; a woman's hairstyle popular in the 18th century; or a part of a garment, such as a dress, gathered into a puff.

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885 – 1972) was an expatriate American poet and critic who was a major figure of the early modernist movement.

prescient - having knowledge of things or events before they exist or happen; having foresight.

provenance - the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.

puerile - silly or childish especially in a way that shows a lack of seriousness or good judgment.

putative - commonly regarded as such; reputed; supposed to be; assumed to be such.

putrefy - rotting or decaying with an offensive odor.


quagmire - a boggy ground; a situation from which escape or extrication is extremely difficult.

quash - to suppress; quell; subdue; in Law, to make void, annul, or set aside.


rectitude - rightness of principle or conduct; moral virtue; correctness.

reredos – (also spelled, raredos) an altarpiece, or a screen or decoration behind the altar in a church, usually depicting religious icons or images.

retroussé – (Anatomy of a nose) turned up. Figuratively, a quick and cheerful readiness to do something.

Alfred Arthur Rouse – (1894 - 1931) was convicted as a British murderer. It was never proved, that Rouse, wishing to fabricate his own death, picked up and murdered a hitch-hiker. Rouse burnt his car with the man inside. The hitch-hiker's identity was never known thus Rouse was convicted of the murder of an unknown man.


salver - is a flat tray, generally of metal, used for carrying or serving glasses, pitchers, cups, and dishes at a table, or for the presenting of a letter or business or calling card.

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886 – 1967) was an English poet, writer, and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those responsible for a tragic and perhaps avoidable war.

scintilla - a spark; a flash; a trace amount.

sepia - a reddish-brown color, named after the rich brown pigment derived from the ink sac of the common cuttlefish.

serried - compact; crowded together; marked by ridges.

Seurat - Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859 - 1891) was a French Post-Impressionist painter and draftsman.

simian - the "higher primates": monkeys, apes, and humans; “ape-like”.

SOCO – (British) Scene of Crime Officers; CSI (U.S.) Crime Scene Investigators

spanner – (British) a tool; (U.S.) a wrench

sultana - a white seedless grape

sussuration - a soft murmur; a whisper


These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – a quote from T.S. Eliot's poem “The Waste Land”.

Photo of Freddy Bywaters and Edith Jessie Thompson with their victim, Percy Thompson.
Photo of Freddy Bywaters and Edith Jessie Thompson with their victim, Percy Thompson.

Edith Jessie Thompson (1893 – 1923) and Frederick Edward Bywaters (1902 – 1923) were a British couple executed for the murder of Thompson’s husband Percy. Their case created a sensation in the British press. Thompson named Bywaters as the killer. Thompson acknowledged knowing Bywaters.They arrested Bywaters, and discovered a series of love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters, Thompson was then arrested as well. They were each charged with murder and summarily executed.

Thompson Bywater Case – See above.

trilby - is a narrow-brimmed type of hat. The trilby was once viewed as the rich man's hat which was frequently seen at the horse races in England.

trug - (British) a shallow basket made from strips of wood for carrying garden products; a shallow wooden milk pan.

turgid - swollen; distended; inflated, overblown, or pompous.



V2 bombardment - The V-2 (German) Vergeltungswaffe 2, (English) Vengeance Weapon 2) - the world's first long-range ballistic missile. Starting in September 1944, several thousand V-2s were launched by the Germans against Allied targets, mainly London and later Antwerp and Liège.

vitiate – to cause to be less effective; to ruin or spoil.

viva voce - (Latin phrase) literal "with living voice," most often translated as "by word of mouth."


William Herbert Wallace (1878 – 1933) was convicted in 1931 of the murder of his wife Julia in Liverpool. His conviction was later overturned, the first instance in British legal history where an appeal had been allowed after re-examination of evidence.

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) was an English humorist. His novels, stories, and plays enjoyed enormous success during a career that lasted more than seven decades. Although Wodehouse spent a great deal of time abroad, his characters portrayed true to form the pre- and post-World War I English upper class.



William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman to achieve such distinction.



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    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I love Ruth Rendall's writing and have read every book and short story she's published. As far as I'm concerned, she is the Grand Master of the psychological suspense genre.

      Your glossary will be handy for someone unfamiliar with Rendall's prose, particularly because of the era in which this novel is set. Neat idea.

      I'm glad I noticed the title of this hub. I haven't read "The Murder Room" in a couple of years, but can see it on a bookshelf from where I sit at my desk. It's time to re-read the book and enjoy it all over again! (I always read the best books more than once--often more than twice.)

      Voted Up++



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