Skull Beneath The Skin by P.D James

The Skull Beneath The Skin is a 1982 detective novel by P. D. James which features her female private detective Cordelia Gray for a second time. The novel is set in a reconstructed Victorian castle on the fictional Courcy Island on the Dorset coast and centers around actress Clarissa Lisle who is to play John Webster’s drama The Duchess of Malfi in the castle’s restored theatre.

It takes its title from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Whispers of Immortality”, where Webster is famously said to be “much possessed by death” and to see “the skull beneath the skin”. (Gold, 2007)

P.D James

P.D James Biography
This website gives a great insight into the life and works of P.D James, which documents her bibliography  from her first novel “Cover Her Face” in 1962 to her latest piece, a critical exploratory look into the genre of detective fiction called “Talking about Detective Fiction” published in 2009. As well as listing the numerous awards she has won in her career, it also provides the reader with a critical perspective on P.D James’ works, her conventions in playing around and subverting the elements of detective fiction along with an analysis of the her two main characters in her novels Adam Danglish (who appears in the majority of her works) and Cordelia Gray (who in turn only appears in two of her novels “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1972 and The Skull Beneath the Skin in 1982).

Profile on P.D James
Another biographical piece on P.D James, listing her literary works and the various awards she has won in her long and established career.

Skull Beneath The Skin

Skull Beneath The Skin Study Guide
This website is a must for when studying “Skull Beneath The Skin.” Written as a HSC study in 2007, this website discusses the key elements of the novel:
– Background
– Style,
– Setting
– Context
– A great breakdown of characters (including their age, social class, their relationship to other characters and  how each individual’s values on life are demonstrated in the book)
– Values
– Themes and
– How Skull Beneath The Skin both adheres and diverts the elements of crime fiction.

It a great website in pointing out the key features of the text to which are crucial in the essay response for the elective of “Genre: Crime Writing” in the HSC.

Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P.D. James
Although originally appearing in Christian Century (May 16, 1984), this article entitled “Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P.D. James” is a great essay about P.D James’ work, while analysing and highlights the concept of the issues of morality in P.D James’ novels, an theme that is prevalent in “Skull Beneath The Skin.” While it encompasses the majority of P.D James’ work up until 1984, the concluding paragraphs at the end of the essay discuss the themes of morality in “Skull Beneath The Skin” through a theological perspective relating to the crimes committed within the novel.

Skull Beneath The Skin Crime Fiction Elements
Also written as a HSC study guide, this .pdf document file presents a brief summary on “Skull Beneath The Skin” (starting from page 3) in a way that would be helpful for students to break down the novel. While not presented in the greatest of detail, it includes a summary of the text, how the text relates to crime fiction, the characterisations, values and general notes about the novel.

What is also interesting about this .pdf file is that has information about another prescribed text (The Real Inspector Hound) with other non-prescribed texts (“The Big Sleep” by Howard Hawkes, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Three Act Tragedy” by Agatha Christie and “Survival of the Fittest” by Jonathan Kellerman) that can be very useful in writing about for other crime fiction related texts for the essay in the HSC.

To best use this file, right click the title “Skull Beneath The Skin Crime Fiction Elements”  and “save target as”

Skull Beneath The Skin by P.D James worksheet (downloadable .pdf file here)

Click here to visit the next prescribed text “Rear Window”

1. Gold, A (2007) Literature and Skull Beneath The Skin. Letters To The World. Accessed August 10, 2010 from

1. Skull Beneath The Skin cover. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from
2. Sandison, D (2008) P.D James. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from
3. Cartoon Female Detective. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from
4. Female Detective. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from