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."
The story opens with a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Eleanor Maxie at Martingale. 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 happens to be in love with Stephen Maxie. Serving at the party is Sally Jupp, an unwed mother with an infant son hired 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 old 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 Jupp, 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.
When Sally gets back 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 the exact same dress Deborah is wearing, with the exact same accessories. Guests are shocked to silence but Deborah appears unconcerned. Later that day, Sally announces that Stephen has asked her to marry him. Sally also verbally abuses the distraught Miss Liddell, calling her a “sex-starved old hypocrite.”
The following day, Martha complains that Sally overslept again. When there is no response to repeated knocking at her bedroom, Stephen and Felix go up a ladder to enter the room through the window, and finds 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. Assigned to solve the case are Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh and Detective Sergeant Martin. They interview the members and guests of the Martingale household. They also interview Miss Liddell, Dr. Epps, some neighbors of the Maxies, and Sally’s aunt and uncle.
It turns out that Sally is already married to James Ritchie, a man with a successful job in the United States who goes back to England to find her dead. Sally has been saving money for her husband’s return. She blackmails her uncle into giving her 30 pounds. She only pretended to be an unwed mother because she likes to play with people. She accepted Stephen Maxie’s proposal of marriage for the same reason.
Martha has been regularly drugging Sally at night so she will oversleep, and be discredited, and eventually dismissed from Martingale. It is Mrs. Eleanor Maxie who eventually confesses to the murder of Sally Jupp. She goes to prison and Deborah is left alone in the house. Old Mr. Maxie, an invalid throughout the story, dies in the course of the investigation.
The novel ends with a meeting between Adam Dalgliesh and Deborah Riscoe. Adam gives Deborah a ride back to Martingale from a grocery. Deborah tells her that Catherine will marry James Ritchie. It is hinted that a relationship will develop between Adam and Deborah.
Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh – in charge of the investigation
Detective Sergeant Martin – Dalgliesh’s partner
Mrs. Eleanor Maxie – owner of Martingale
Stephen Maxie – son of Eleanor; engaged to 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 husband
Felix Hearne – in love with Deborah; holds both French and British decorations for his part in the 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 Maxies long-time domestic servant
Sally Jupp – domestic servant; 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