The Skull Beneath The Skin is a 1982 detective novel by British crime writer P.D. James and featuring her renowned female private detective Cordelia Gray. The novel is set on fictional Courcy Island on the Dorset Coast, in a Victorian castle that has been refurbished and modernized. The plot centers around actress Clarissa Lisle who is about to perform in John Webster's drama "The Duchess Of Malfi" in the castles's restored theater. The book takes its title from the T.S. Eliot poem "Whispers Of Immortality" where Webster is said to be "much possessed by death" and to see "the skull beneath the skin".
Cordelia Gray is engaged by Baronet Sir George Ralston, a World War One hero, to accompany his wife, Clarissa, for a weekend at Courcy Castle as she has been receiving little-disguised death threats in the form of quotations from plays that she has played the leading role in. Shortly before the performance of the Duchess Of Malfi Clarissa is brutally murdered, leaving Cordeliaand the Dorset Criminal Investigation Department to deal with the complicated matter of solving the crime.
Unlike the majority of P.D. James' other novels, particularly the Commander Adam Dalgleish novels, this book was not critically well-received. Critics bemoaned the unlikelihood of the crime and the confused way that the lead character acted despite having been a highly capable and incisive female detective in previous novels that had centered on her. James returned to her Agatha Christie-like critical success after the release of her next novel and was shortly afterwards made a Dame by the Queen.