'The Skull Beneath The Skin' by P.D. James


‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ is a Contemporary Crime Fiction Text. It has a big focus on character development and psychological analysis. All the main character each have a chapter dedicated to their perspective but the rest on the novel is in 3rd person limited from Cordelia’s perspective.

It is written in a linear structure and has allot of literary allusions pointing and foreshadowing the death/s as well as the atmosphere and necrophilia Victoriana foreshadowing the death/s.


‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ in on an Island off the coast of Dorset. It is non existent in real life and is titled Courcy Island in the novel.

Cordelia Gray’s office:

Pryde’s Detective Agency was ‘…set up by an ex-Metropolitan policeman, Bernie Pryde’. Bernie slit his wrists and left the Agency to Cordelia. The agency is the first place we are taken in the novel and we are first told about the new name-plate that doesn’t sit straight.

Sir George Ralston had this to say on page 9:

‘…Don’t people ever tell you…’

Cordelia, unreasonably, was disappointed. Why should she have supposed that he was different from other male clients? She finished the sentence for him:

‘That it’s an unsuitable job for a woman? They do, and it isn’t.’

He said mildly:

‘I was going to say, don’t they ever tell you that your office is difficult to find? This street’s a mess. Half the buildings aren’t properly numbered. Too much change of use, I suppose. But the new plate should help when it’s properly fixed. Better get it done. Gives a poor impression.’

The office itself is decorated with plants and other than that it is bare. The bareness to Cordelia suggests a lack of work to do, which is not a good thing. The painted yellow walls brings a greater suggestion of light and Cordelia still uses Bernie’s old Oak desk.

Courcy Island:

Courcy Island has a dark past. It has on it Courcy Castle, The Theater, Courcy Church, Courcy Crypt and the Devils Kettle.


Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls

Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

He knew that thought clings round dead limbs

Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

from T. S. ELIOT, ‘Whispers of Immorality’

‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ was first published in 1982 and, as a contemporary text, was set around the same time frame. It was written and set in Britain.

The history of the Island tells us things occurring during World War Two. The cold was had been going since the 1940s and was still an issue when the book was written.

1982 was a time of feminist success and females getting more equal opportunities in the work place. There was also a rise in female authors, and hence, female sleuths. Crime Fiction was also very popular around this time.
The novel shows the British class divisions that were present in the late 20th century. The class system where you could buy your way into the upper class.


“The Skull Beneath the skin” has a big focus on character development. This is because P. D. James is questioning what it means to be human. Allot of the values and themes are shown through these characters and explained in this section.

Cordelia Gray:

Cordelia Gray is the detective. Like Marlow of ‘The Big Sleep’ she has her flaws and is a loner (but with support from her colleagues Bevis and Maudsley).

Her detective characteristics & conventions include her great ability to, and practice of, analyzing people and reading people.

‘He wasn’t tall, perhaps no more than five feet ten inches, but he stood very upright with an easy, confident stance, almost an elegance, which she sensed concealed an inner wariness, as if he were tensed for a word of command. She wondered if he had once been a soldier.’ - Page 8

She was Describing Sir George and, as we know, he was a solider.

She is alone on her mission. Her boss and partner Bernie had killed himself. As well as feeling lonely, she is struggling with the job she had been given and her own thoughts on weather this person even deserved to live.

‘Suddenly Cordelia felt immensely lonely. The job which had promised so much seemed now a humiliating waste of time and effort. She no longer cared who was sending the messages or why. She felt that she hardly cared whether Clarissa lived or died. …She was here to protect Clarissa, not to judge her.’ - Page 108.

She remembered Bernie’s words. Why is it that he still speaks from the grave and tells Cordelia to protect someone who probably should be in his place?

‘You can’t make moral judgements in about you clients in this job, mate. Start that and you may as well shut up the shop.’ - Bernie page 108

Age: Cordelia Gray is the second youngest on the island.

Social Class: Upper middle class.


Cordelia had a wide brow, high cheek bones and a cat-like face that made her look younger that she already is. - Description found on page 70.

On page 55-56 we read what Cordelia plans to wear on Courcy Island. ‘The most Onerous [boring] part of the preparation for this new case was deciding which cloths to pack. …Such a total preoccupation with externals must, she felt, argue a need to compensate for some deficiency at the heart of personality. But she was quick to recognize that her own interest in cloths and make-up, although spasmodic, was intense while it lasted and that she had never known that state of not in the least caring how she looked. …The creamy-fawn pleated skirt in fine wool and the matching cashmere two-piece, both bought at Harrods in the July sale, should, she felt, take care of most occasions; the cashmere’s understated extravagance might, with luck, inspire confidence in the agency’s prosperity. If the warm weather held, her brown corduroy knickerbockers might be warm for sleuthing or walking but they were tough and she liked the jerkin and jacket, either of which looked good with them. Jeans and a couple of cotton tops were an obvious choice as was her Guernsey. …She would need something cool and reasonably formal. In the end she packed he only long dress, in Indian cotton in subtle shades of pink, red and brown, and a pleated cotton skirt with matching top.’

Ivo observes on page 93, ‘…the firm yet delicate chin, the sweet curve of the throat.’

Values demonstrated in their way of life:

Cordelia Gray is a detective who works out of ‘Pryde’s Detective Agency’.

We learn early in the novel that Cordelia values life and finds it hard to let go. This is seen in how she cannot throw away Bernie’s old hat. ‘Twice she had taken it as far as the dustbin in the back yard but had been unable to drop it in, finding this final symbolic rejection of Bernie even more personal and traumatic than the exclusion of his name from the name plaque.’ - Page 11.

Perhaps Cordelia has the thought that she has been failing Bernie just as she had thought she had failed to save Clarissa. When she did ‘fail’ she kept on with the case like she was obliged to do so. This is not because of Sir George or any pressure from an external force, but rather, an internal moral code that forces her to keep integrity in tact as well as she can and to try her best to achieve justice. Cordelia’s uneasy past has taught her these moral values.

Cordelia works alone.

Relationship to other characters and how this changes:

Clarissa Lisle:
Cordelia was appointed to protect Clarissa Lisle on her stay at Courcy Island. She was specifically appointed because she impressed her by finding a cat so fast and charging so little.

Cordelia doesn’t like Clarissa and at one point she doesn’t care if she lives or dies. She doesn’t show her the letters received at the Island perhaps because she was confused to whether Clarissa wanted her life protected, or her performance protected. Clarissa’s last minute talk on seeing the skull beneath the skin disproves the latter.

When Clarissa dies, Cordelia feels she was unable to protect her and that it was effectively her fault. She decides to continue on with the case because of this.

Sir George Ralston:
Cordelia was appointed by Sir George. She feels obliged to continue with finding the killer because of Sir George’s lost love and wonders what is expected of her.

Roma Lisle: A friendly relationship on Courcy. There are times when Roma takes her aside to confide in her, but Roma is always frank.

Simon Lessing: Cordelia tries her best to be nice to Simon. At her peak of stress he tries to confide in her. At the time she felt it difficult to sympathize with Simon’s obsessive self concern.

‘I’ve told you. I wouldn’t tell. But I’m not you. It’s your responsibility and you can’t force it on anyone else. Surely there’s something you’re capable of deciding for yourself.’ - Page 281.

It was his responsibility, forced upon by Ambrose. His decision was suicide, supposedly like his father. Forced suicide, sounds like murder.

She risks her life to try and save him. She unlocks him and tells him where to swim. She couldn’t swim for him. He either gave up, or couldn’t escape. Its probable that he gave up. ‘I’m not worth it. I killed Munter, too.’ - Page 364

Ivo Whittingham: Ivo is friendly to Cordelia and is interested in knowing her as apposed to trying to have intimacy with her before the weekend was out. He would have done, if his date of death hadn’t changed his perspectives and his sickness changed any possibility.

‘How very sweet she was, with the gentle, self-contained dignity. He smiled and held out his hand to her.’

Ivo is the one to tell Cordelia the tragic story of Tolly’s child.

Rose Tolgarth: Tolly wasn’t known well by many. She was an ‘extraordinary woman’.

She sees Tolly in a new light before she leaves the island with Mrs. Munter. She finally saw the real Tolly, but she seemed unchanged in her actions. She was released by the death of Clarissa and so to was Miss Munter through the death of her partner.

She was still confused about Tolly but thought her motives were good. Her seemingly unemotional motives that lay beneath the surface.

Henry James: ‘Never believe that you know the last word about any human heart.’ - Page 317.

Grogan, Buckley: Interviewers and suspect. The police have reasonable suspicion against Cordelia because she is the only one Clarissa would have let in during the hours of death and she knew the marble was missing.

Clarissa Lisle

Age: Close to Ambrose’s age, which is quite old.

Social Class: High class.


‘The immediate impression, whether by chance or design, was of a goddess of classical mythology with her attendance. …She was wearing what looked like shorts and a sleeveless top in closely pleated cream muslin with, over it, a loose-fitting, almost transparent shift in the same material, wide-sleeved and corded at the waist. Beside this deceptively simple, cool flowing elegance…’ - Page 74.

‘She was a heavily busted, rather sturdy woman with a face that looked older than her body, and with remarkably elegant legs. Their shape was enhanced by very fine stockings and high-heeled court shoes, an incongruous touch of vanity which emphasized the plainness of the high-necked black dress, its only ornament a gold cross on a chain. Her dark hair, parted in the middle and drawn back into a bun at the nape of the neck, was already streaked with grey and there were lines deep as clefts across the forehead and at the ends of the long mouth. It was a strong, secretive face not, Cordelia thought, the face of a woman willingly subservient.’ - Page 80.

Values demonstrated in their way of life:

Clarissa did not value herself, others or life in general. She lived in fear.

Clarissa didn’t value herself because her father did not value her. He was cold to her. He didn’t ever physically abuse her (maybe that would make her less superficial), but rather, he neglected her. He gave her nothing but contempt and sarcasm designed to cut her down. She became afraid of her father and afraid to show any intelligence or thoughts that she had of her own. (info from page 263)

She became more comfortable taking on a role, a different persona. She valued acting more than she valued herself. She was afraid to show her own emotions, but not afraid to show them if you call them someone else’s, say, Cleopatra.

She doesn’t value others and is very cruel. Her father is one reason why. Her upper class attitude and greed makes her think that everyone is after her money and that she should protect it, even from Sir George. This is seen when Clarissa and Cordelia are discussing Simon and the cost it is to send him to the school he goes to. She values her money over Simons education.

She doesn’t value life because she is afraid of death. She learnt the facts of death before the facts of life. She is afraid. This is seen by her reactions to the blackmail.

Relationship to other characters and how this changes:

Clarissa is hated by almost every character in the novel except for Sir George. Simon Kills her. Ambrose blackmails her. There is a point when Cordelia doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. Roma partly envies her because of her money and hates her because of her mocking Roma’s love. Tolly was once blackmailing her because of her child. Ivo knows her and her motives and charm and hates her and hates to see her using her charm to control or destroy others. So, the victim is almost hated by all, a convention derived from the cozy school of Crime Fiction.

Ambrose Gorringe

Age: Close to Clarissa’s age, which is quite old.

Social class:

Ambrose Gorringe’s father, as well as Clarissa’s, was diplomatic.

He inherited Courcy Island from his uncle in 1977, when he spent a year abroad for tax avoidance.

Gorringe is unmarried.

Sir George Ralston seems to recall that Gorringe read history at Cambridge. Cambridge University has a great reputation as one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It is the 2nd oldest university in the English-speaking world.

He has a passion for Victoriana and keeps all his Victorian necrophilia in a place in his castle called the Memento Mori. He takes pride in his possessions. P 82 tour.

He has a butler named Mr. Munter who lives on the island with his wife who is a maid servant.


This extract is from page 74 of ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’. It is Cordelia’s first sight of Ambrose when she arrives at Courcy island for the first time.

‘Ambrose Gorringe was of middle height with smooth black hair and delicate hands and feet. He gave an impression of spry plumpness, not because he carried excess fat but because of the feminine softness and roundness of his arms and face. His skin gleamed pink and white, the circular flush on each cheekbone looked almost artificial. His eyes were the most striking feature. They were large and sparkling bright as black, sea-washed pebbles, the surrounding whites clear and translucent. Above them the brows curved in a strong arch as tidily as if they had been plucked. The ends of the mouth curved upwards in a fixed smile so that the whole face held the shining humorous animation of a man enjoying a perpetual internal joke. He was wearing brown cotton trousers and a black short-sleeved singlet. Both were highly suitable for the weather and the occasion, yet to Cordelia they seemed incongruous. Something more formal was needed to define and control the latent strength of what she guessed was a complex and, perhaps, a formidable personality.’

Values demonstrated in their way of life:

‘Certainly not. It may be unique. I regard it as an interesting addition to my minor Victoriana.’ - Ambrose p 85

‘The death or mutilation of a child is always disturbing, don’t you think, Clarissa?’ - Ivo p 85

‘Buckley thought that he had never seen a murder suspect as much at ease under questioning as Ambrose Gorringe.’ (chapter 28 page 225)

Relationship to other characters and how this changes:

Cordelia Gray: First make acquaintance on Gray’s assignment on Courcy. He at first thought that she was Clarissa Lisle’s temporary secretary-companion. He suspected her as something else when she rose questions about Roma’s woodcut. She told him that she was a private detective after the murder had taken place.

Clarissa Lisle: Ambrose and Clarissa have know each other since childhood. They appear to be on friendly terms when they are playing scrabble together in chapter 15. In chapter 17 (page 119) Clarissa says to Cordelia ‘I’ll consult Ambrose…’ in regard to Simons talent and what Clarissa should do with him.

Ivo has this to say about their relationship: “Hadn’t you noticed that? She’s trying to take him over, him and his theatre and his island. He likes his private kingdom. Clarissa is a particularly persistent invader.” - page 104

Ambrose says that he owed putting on the play for Clarissa because she gave him the idea of writing Autopsy.

Sir George Ralston: Sir George was stationed at the island as a young officer for a few months in 1940. They both know about the story behind the Devil’s Kettle. Ambrose hesitated to tell the story perhaps because of Sir George.

Roma Lisle: A normal relationship as a guest and host. After the murder of Clarissa Roma thinks that Ambrose is the killer. In chapter 33 (Page 262) she says to Clarissa, “I should like it to be Ambrose if anyone, But I can’t believe it. Wasn’t is George Orwell who wrote that murder, the unique crime, should arise only from strong emotions? Ambrose never felt a strong emotion in his life. And he hasn’t the courage or ruthlessness. He isn’t capable of that much hatred. He likes to play with the toys of violence; a tag end of executioner’s rope, a bloodstained nightdress, a pair of Victorian handcuffs. With Ambrose even the horror come second hand, disinfected by time and charm and quaintness.”

Simon Lessing: At first Ambrose is neutral towards Simon and enjoys listening to his music on the piano, especially when Simon plays sentimental Victorian drawing-room ballads.

Rose Tolgarth: In chapter 21 Ambrose says just after the murder, ‘Extraordinary woman! I’ve never understood her. I doubt weather Clarissa did. And why the sudden concern for Simon? She’s never shown any particular interest in the boy.’ (page 172)

Grogan, Buckley: No relationship, just police business. But Ambrose may have done his homework on the officers, particularly Grogan when he says, ‘Remember the Gutteridge case, Chief inspector?’ (chapter 28 page 231)

Munter: Munter and his wife came into Ambrose’s service in July 1978, three months after his return from a year abroad.

Sir George Ralston

Age: Appears to be a little over sixty.

Social class: He is married to Clarissa making him upper class.


He isn’t tall (Around five feet ten inches). Stood upright with his head held high and fixed. Grey hair brushed smoothly back. ‘The face was long and bony with a dominant nose jutting from cheeks reddened and crossed by broken veins, and a wide, well-shaped mouth.’ Bushy eyebrows. A restless, twitchy face. - Description and quote from pages 7 to 8.

Values demonstrated in his way of life:

Sir George is a veteran. He stands for honor, loyalty and what is expected of him, formally being a soldier. He values his wife’s life and watching her plays. He is straight to the point and systematic. He has an unsettled face. This could be due to the fact that he loved his wife but she gave him no respect compared to what he deserved. Respect is a big issue with a military man and he must have been struggling within about this dilemma.

Relationship with other characters and how this changes:

Sir George is Clarissa’s third husband until she dies. He became the guardian of Simon and agreed to let him finish his schooling.

Roma Lisle

Roma has the curse of saying things as they are but at the wrong time, every time.

‘Someone should put a stop to Clarissa.’

Cordelia said:

‘Someone has.’ - Page 176

Social class: A failed school teacher, owns an unsuccessful book shop with a man who she loves that already has a wife. Middle class and need money from Clarissa to have a slight hope in increasing book sales and getting her lover.


Superficially, she had nothing in common with her cousin except the shape of the lower lip. She was too fair, but it was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon blondness in which the strong sun already revealed the glint of grey. Her hair was short and expensively shaped to her head. She was taller than her cousin and moved with a certain assurance. But her face, with it’s lines scored across the forehead and from nose to mouth, had a look of brooding discontent and there was no peace in the eyes. …It was impossible to not recognize that here was a woman who cared about cloths without having any clear idea what suited either her or the occasion.’ - Page 67.

Simon Lessing

Simon is the Murderer. He swam as his father did and the question is raised to weather he (or his father for that matter) committed suicide.

Age: 17

Social class: Simon relies on Clarissa and goes to an expensive school making him upper class.


‘He was better looking than first glimpse had suggested, with a long, sensitive face and widely spaced grey eyes. But his skin was pitted with the scars of old acne with a fresh outcrop along the forehead, and his mouth was weak.’ - Page 70.

Ivo Whittingham

Age: Past middle age but is going to die shortly because of sickness.

Social class: play critic, upper middle class.


‘The figure was still the thinnest and most desperately sick man she had ever seen moving on his own feet but the voice was firm, and the words were easy and comfortable.’ - page 68

Other Minor Characters Include:

Grogan: A very experienced and learned officer

Buckley: The younger officer. Grogan explained and described through this character because, Grogan being Grogan, couldn’t pick up his own vibe and impressions.

& Munter: The butler. ‘…dark suit and heavy white lugubrious face had the spurious gloom of a Victorian undertaker’s mute.’ - Page 74

Drowned in the pool where Simon could have saved him but didn’t.


There are many values imbedded in ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ and a lot of them are described above in the characters analysis.

The moral values include a believe in the existence of evil. Cordelia was taught what evil was from her first case after Bernie’s case. She had said the line ‘And deliver us from evil’ over and over and yet did not know what she wanted to get away from.

‘It was when she had finally stared into the face of his murderer that she had known about evil.’

This view moves away from the idea of everyone being capable of murder. It tells us that there is a certain degree of evil that it takes to kill someone and that someone can be plain evil. That being said, Simon s a good kid who was fooled by evil.

The book values life. It has the idea that death can bring out the meaning of life in someone. But, it also shows the different effects it has on people. Ivo, for instance, sees not only the skull beneath the skin, but the heart beneath the skin. He looks at life through dying eyes that no longer are blinded by lust, but opened by death. Tolly and M. Munter’s partner were able to be free for the first time.

An idea is raise that living life in fear (Like Simon) is not worth living, while living life without fear (Like Ambrose) is being a monster.


The first theme is the most obvious and is the use of Literary Allusions. The death notes made up of Shakespeare quotes gives the idea that death is just an act in a play. The suicide of Simon nearing the end of the novel is just like that of Othello or Romeo and Juliet. A suicide because of a misleading, a tragedy.

Ambrose must have designed it to be this way. This is seen in how he places the body in such an eloquent position so the death scene is a painting of meaning, and not just a room with a corpse.

The literary allusions also include the extract from T. S. ELIOT, ‘Whispers of Immorality’. The way the skin forms over the skull when Cordelia first describes the dying Ivo, or Clarissa’s professed fear of death and confession that ‘There was never a time when I didn’t see the skull beneath the skin’. - Page 125.

The text questions what it is to be human. How is it that someone can be apart of two murders and force someone to suicide without an ounce of emotion? How is it that someone could kill to keep a castle? The Dark Victoriana Necrophilia says that the castle represents death. That if anything stood between the king and his castle, that death would sweep them down.

Another theme is the connection between death and sex. Ivo had been touched by death and so no longer lusted for women as he used to. He had much more passion than he had previously had. Clarissa, on the other hand, was old and a bitch. She needed sex before her performances and demanded it from Simon. He killed her.

So, Ivo had learnt that there was more to life than sex, and Clarissa learnt the hard way that sex can end someone’s life. Not only hers, but Simons and anyone else that is effected by the ripples.

The last theme I would like to state is the theme of gender in the novel. The detective is a female who is emotional but strong. She remembers the words of her former partner and boss ‘You can’t make moral judgements in about you clients in this job, mate. Start that and you may as well shut up the shop.’ - Bernie page 108. She solves the crime (although doesn’t restore peace) and the police don’t. The professionals on the case were two officers, each representing a different generation, each male and each experienced. The male is seen as only a true professional when it comes to being a criminal, such a Ambrose. The unassuming ending is like a metaphor for the glass ceiling. The women found out the problem, but was held back but forces she couldn’t control.

How It Adheres to the Conventions of Crime Fiction:

‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ by P. D. James in a Contemporary Crime Fiction text. Through its mass character development it questions what it is to be human.

The Crime is murder and the initial murder is followed by a number of other murders. The original murder of Cordelia is graphic and violent which is a convention of Contemporary pieces. The description of Bernie’s suicide is also very graphic.

Most settings in crime fiction tend to be isolated and ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ is no exception. ‘…This is a story-book killing: a close circle of suspects, isolated scene-of-crime conveniently cut off from the main land, known Terminus a quo and terminus ad quem.’ - Ambrose page 191.

Some of the red herrings in this text include:

1, The idea that the jewelry box was stolen for the value of the jewels inside it.

2, The idea that Sir George was the murderer because of Munter’s performance one evening on page 275. ‘Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!’ He wasn’t referring to Clarissa but to the officer who had died years earlier in the Devil’s Kettle.

The text has a drawing room denouement but, as it explained below, it is slightly different from the conventional drawing room denouncement.

On page 108, Cordelia is reading Sherlock Holmes stories out of old copies of the Strand magazine. Cordelia’s scene-of-crime kit included: ‘Envelopes and tweezers for the collection of specimens, dusting powder for the detection of fingerprints, a Polaroid camera, a torch, fine rubber gloves, a magnifying glass, scissors and a sturdy penknife, a tin of plasticine for taking impressions of keys, test tubes with stoppers for the collection of blood samples.’ - page 56.

Society is left unstable, as Ambrose was never put behind bars. The killings weren’t really justified by Ambrose, or justified in a way we could understand as normal people. This convention holds true to Contemporary Crime Fiction.

How It Diverts from the Conventions of Crime Fiction:

The Skull Beneath the Skin’ is quite a hybrid text because it is Contemporary but also blends classic cozy house conventions with hard-boiled characteristics.

The murder takes place in a classic closed circle, true to the Golden Age. Normally a Contemporary text would have an open setting. It is true that Cordelia is able to leave the island after the murder, but no outside force or person was the cause of death. The killer was always living with her on the island.

Contemporary texts usually have the detective or crime stopper part of a team. James uses Cordelia as an individual detective and highlights the classic convention being the inadequacy of the police. Contemporary texts tend to move away from this idea as we see shows like CSI and Law and Order, where the police are the ones who bring justice nearly every week. The police are a team. Grogan and Buckley are unsuccessful in solving the case.

The hybrid nature gives the text a fresh sense of flexibility. ‘Reviewing Agatha Christie at the Vaudeville is a poor preparation for the real thing’ - Page 198.

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