P.D. James says setting plays an important part in all novels, more so in detective novels. It sets the mood, powers the plot and brings in the element of horror, which is all-important at least in crime fiction.
As in all her other novels, James begins Shroud for a Nightingale with a sketch of the setting – a district training school for nurses. Inmates sure have the freedom of physical movement but there’s a feeling that they are cloistered together whether they like it or not and the walls between them are so thin, everybody seems to know the deepest, darkest secrets of each other’s hearts.
Beneath is the mental setting -- a walled-in, all-female atmosphere where sexual escapades and passions prevail and intelligence has to be hidden behind the thin veil of subservience: subservience of nurses to doctors, students to their teachers, of women to men. The first murder (yes there’s promise of some more) is that of a student nurse during a demonstration. Even as the cause of the death is still a point of discussion and speculations on whether it was an accident, suicide, murder or (as some people in the novel seem to be inclined to believe) a practical joke-gone-wrong, are doing the rounds, another student is murdered. It’s time for Adam Dalgliesh, James’ tall, sullen, sharp hero, to take over.
Now come out the deep-seated dislikes and not-so-well-kept secrets. Is there not more to Matron than her stark good looks and quick efficiency let out? Does pretty nurse Pardoe’s past, more interesting than anyone will admit, have relevance to the deaths? Is middle-aged Sister Gearing only desperate for a little flirtation or is her gossipy demeanor leading Dalgliesh towards a killer?
An arrogant consultant, who is used to having his way, twin nursing trainees, best student of the class, anyone could be a murderer.. and the deeper Dalgliesh digs, more the murder motives he finds.