Cover Her Face

Cover Her Face
Cover Her Face  
1st edition cover
Author(s) P. D. James
Cover artist Charles Mozley
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Adam Dalgliesh #1
Genre(s) Crime, Mystery novel
Publisher Faber and Faber
Publication date December 1962
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Followed by A Mind to Murder

Cover Her Face is the debut 1962 crime novel of P. D. James. It details the investigations by her poetry-writing detective Adam Dalgliesh into the death of a young, ambitious maid, surrounded by a family which has reasons to want her gone - or dead. The title is taken from a passage from John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi: "Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young."


Plot summary

The story opens with a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Eleanor Maxie at Martingale, a mediaeval manor house in the (fictional) Essex village of Chadfleet. Mrs. Maxie's son and daughter, Stephen Maxie and Deborah Riscoe, are both at the party. Also present are Dr. Charles Epps, the vicar Bernard Hicks, Miss Alice Liddell, who is the Warden at St. Mary's Refuge for Girls, and Catherine Bowers, a guest at the estate who is in a relationship with Stephen Maxie. Serving at the party is Sally Jupp, an unmarried mother with an infant son, who was employed by Mrs. Maxie at the recommendation of Miss Liddell.

Stephen Maxie champions Sally during dinner, and afterwards Deborah Riscoe cryptically predicts that the young servant will cause trouble. During dinner, it is also mentioned that the Maxie's elderly domestic servant, Martha Bultitaft, is not very pleased with Sally Jupp.

On the Thursday before St. Cedd's church fete, which takes place every year on the grounds of Martingale, Deborah goes to London and visits Stephen at the hospital where he works. There she sees her brother talking with Sally, who looks carefully dressed in a grey suit. Stephen says that Sally brought him some of their father's tablets, which she found on old Mr. Maxie's bed. Stephen suspects that old Mr. Maxie manages to deceive Martha, pretending to take his tablets when he is simply hiding them in his bed.

Stephen again praises Sally and tells Deborah to take the tablets and put them in the medicine cupboard at their father's room. Deborah is suspicious as to why Sally came to Stephen with the tablets and not to Mrs. Maxie or herself.

When Sally returns to Martingale, she taunts Martha about the tablets and her care for old Mr. Maxie.

On the day of the fete, Sally shows up wearing exactly the same dress that Deborah is wearing, with the same accessories. Guests are shocked into silence, but Deborah appears unconcerned. Later that day, Sally announces that Stephen has asked her to marry him. Miss Liddell is distraught by this announcement and her unkind words are met by abuse, with Sally calling her a "sex-starved old hypocrite" and threatening to reveal her secrets.

The following day, Martha complains that Sally has overslept again. When there is no response to repeated knocking at her bedroom, Stephen and Felix (a close friend of Deborah's, who is staying at the house) go up a ladder to enter the room through the window, and find Sally Jupp's lifeless body.

Sally Jupp is found to have died of manual strangulation by a right-handed person. She is also found to have been drugged. The local constabulary request that Scotland Yard send an experienced homicide detective, and Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh and Detective Sergeant Martin arrive. They interview the family members and guests of the Martingale household. They also interview Miss Liddell, Dr. Epps, some neighbours of the Maxies, and Sally's aunt and uncle.

It emerges that Sally is already secretly married to James Ritchie, who has a successful job in Venezuela, but returns to England after her death. Sally has been saving money for her husband's return. She blackmails her uncle (who unbeknownst to her had spent her modest trust fund) into giving her 30 pounds. She pretended to be an unmarried mother because revealing the marriage would jeopardise her husband's job and she likes to 'play with people'. She revealed Stephen Maxie's proposal of marriage for the same reason, although it is notable that she did not accept it.

Martha had been regularly drugging Sally at night so that she would oversleep, and be discredited, and eventually dismissed from Martingale. It is Mrs. Eleanor Maxie who eventually confesses to the murder of Sally Jupp after Dalgliesh reveals everyone's movements on the night. It is clear, through a process of elimination, that only she could be the culprit.

She goes to prison, having been found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and Deborah is left alone in the house. Martha goes to stay with a friend in Herefordshire. Old Mr. Maxie, an invalid throughout the story, dies shortly before Mrs Maxie confesses; it becomes clear that she was waiting for his death before doing so.

The novel ends with a meeting between Adam Dalgliesh and Deborah Riscoe. Adam gives Deborah a lift back to Martingale. Deborah tells him that Catherine will probably marry James Ritchie, thus providing a mother for Sally Jupp's son Jimmy (named after his father). It is hinted that a relationship will develop between Adam and Deborah.

The Characters

Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh – in charge of the investigation

Detective Sergeant Martin – Dalgliesh's partner

Mrs. Eleanor Maxie – owner of Martingale, mother to Stephen and Deborah

Stephen Maxie – son of Eleanor; admires and desires Sally Jupp; doctor at St. Luke's Hospital

Deborah Riscoe – daughter of Eleanor; her husband, Edward Riscoe, died of poliomyelitis less than a year after they were married

Mr. Simon Maxie – Eleanor's invalid and elderly husband

Felix Hearne – in love with Deborah; holds both French and British decorations for his part in the WW2 resistance movement; tortured by the Gestapo

Dr. Charles Epps – a widower, long-time physician of the Maxies

Bernard Hinks – vicar of Chadfleet

Miss Alice Liddell – Warden of St. Mary's Refuge for Girls

Catherine Bowers – guest at Martingale; expects to marry Stephen Maxie

Martha Bultitaft – the Maxie's long-time domestic servant

Sally Jupp – domestic servant at Martingale for several months; victim of homicide; lived at St. Mary's during the last five months of her pregnancy, then returned from the hospital after giving birth and stayed there till coming to work at Martingale

James Ritchie – Sally's husband

Mr. and Mrs. Proctor – Sally's aunt and uncle who raised her after her parents were killed during the Blitz

Literary significance and criticism

The novel was generally very well received by critics.

"Her first detective story, immediately pleasing and impressive. The pace is deliberate, the characterization of the members of an English county family very well done, and the central character of Sally Jupp -- a servant girl with imagination and a love of power -- most unusual but compelling. Insp. Dalgliesh is perhaps too quietly competent in his disclosure of Sally's killer -- and, despite the title, the girl isn't a Duchess of Malfi."[1] - A Catalogue of Crime


A television version of the novel was produced for Britain's ITV network in 1985. It starred Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh, Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Maxie, Mel Martin as Deborah Riscoe, Julian Glover as Felix Hearne, and Kim Thomson as Sally Jupp.

BBC Radio 4 produced a radio serial, with Hugh Grant as Felix and Siân Phillips as Mrs Maxie, releasing it on CD shortly after airing.[2]


  1. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  2. ^

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