Mindful Meditations : P. D. James – “A Mind to Murder” and “Unnatural Causes” (Adam Dalgliesh #2, 3)

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the Court of Justice, none of us should see Salvation.”

“The Merchant of Venice” – William Shakespeare


ABOVE: The Shadow knows.

Fresh off his historic debut in “Cover her Face,” Adam Dalgliesh, chief inspector and cheesy poet, goes deeper to find “A Mind to Murder.” In P. D. James’ second novel, Dalgliesh  investigates a murder that takes place at the Steen Psychiatric Clinic, at a time when such institutions ran crazy electricity bills due to their penchant for shock treatment. (The patients also get tons of LSD with their morning vitamins, because what else can you expect in 1963?) However, as might be expected, the murder suspects are not the inmates, but those running the asylum: pompous psychotherapists, stern nuns, and fidgety nurses. Don’t overly worry about who’s in what room at what time with what weapon: it’s the little hostilities between the suspects that need keeping a tab on. Dalgliesh spends most of his time questioning and probing in little therapy sessions that have the characters reveal their muddy subconscious to the eyes of justice. We get one or two brief mentions of Dalgliesh’s love interest, Deborah Briscoe…


ABOVE: Incidentally, LSD must have inspired this cover.


ABOVE: Row, row, row your boat

…. And yet in the next Adam Dalgliesh mystery, “Unnatural Causes,” Dalgliesh is pondering his seemingly inevitable marriage to Deborah Briscoe! Romance was NOT P. D. James’ forte.

“Unnatural Causes” opens in a startling manner: a corpse is floating downstream on a dinghy. This is the corpse of mystery writer Maurice Seton, and it has the distinction of having both hands chopped up. What’s more startling is that this opening scene matches one suggested to Seton by fellow author Celia Calthrop, as Celia lets Inspector Dalgliesh know right away. Dalgliesh, who is visiting his aunt Jane as a way to delay his above mentioned nuptials, winds up in a close-knit community of writers and writer-adjacent characters (the critics, the typing assistants)- a community that counted Seton as one of its own. But have artistic jealousies led someone in the literary salon to hand-chopping extremes?

As usual, the P. D. James mystery characterizes itself by, well, characters who are psychologically deeper than the ones from the Golden Age of Mystery. But those characters are not necessarily ones I like. P. D. James is much more conservative than Agatha Christie, (closer to the classist spirit of Dorothy L. Sayers) and with that conservatism comes a certain contempt for their character’s social failures. Because Christie never really had to worry about “psychology,” she didn’t judge her characters. They were all supposed to be more or less civilized adults, any of which could end up as a potential deadly killer or  a completely harmless and fun dinner companion, depending on what the parlor scene decided. But P. D. James is writing in the 60s, not the 30s.  She thinks she knows a lot about her characters, so they must have their sexual foibles, their psychologies, their pathologies (notice how in the original book cover of a “A Mind to Murder,” the woman is literally holding on to a fetish.) She’s judgey, and everyone is some sort of scum under that clinical eye.

I suppose that’s what keeps me at a distance from the P. D. James novels I’ve read so far. I’ve enjoyed them, but I’m not thrilled by them. They are too historically recent, and yet too psychologically of their time. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey (I will talk more about Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn in the future) live in an alternate world, a timeless and delightful alternate world that I love to visit even if the parks and gardens are ridiculously cluttered with dead bodies.


ABOVE: You gotta hand it to whoever made older covers. This one goes for the graphic, instead of the “evocative, empty boat” of the newer edition.

But Adam Dalgliesh lives in a “real” world, and P. D. James attempts to describe a real society of her time, and sometimes she moves clumsily in it. Here’s how an edgy playboy talks in the novel: “Never go to bed with a woman if either of you would be embarrassed to admit the fact next morning. It’s a little restricting to one’s sex life but now you can see the practical advantages.” No man would say something that cool that in an Agatha Christie novel! (In both the “suave” and the “detached” way.)

But then, P. D. James is aware of the tradition she fights again. Re: a Christie-ish author:

“She kept to familiar characters and settings. You know the kind of thing. Cosy English village or small town scene. Local characters moving on the chess board strictly according to rank and station. The comforting illusion that violence is exceptional, that all policemen are honest, that the English class system hasn’t changed in the last twenty years and that murderers aren’t gentlemen.” 

RATING: COOL, and yet I have reservations about James. More admire than like. In fact, I feel COLD about her novels.


Ay, There’s the Pub : Martha Grimes – “The Man with a Load of Mischief,” “The Old Fox Deceiv’d,” “The Anodyne Necklace” (Richard Jury # 1,2,3)


“The Man with a Load of Mischief”: Inspector Richard Jury, off the Dalgliesh/ Barnaby/ Morse/ Lewis etc family tree, associates with Melrose Plant, a Lord who’s given up Lordship to investigate Christmas crimes; bodies pop up at colorfully named pubs; a corpse puts his head in a beer keg; another is hung up on a bar sign.


“The Old Fox Deceiv’d”: Melrose Plant and Richard Jury (minus Aunt Agatha Ardry) once again collaborate on solving a murder tied to a pub; a “Twelfth Night” reveler in domino costume pops out of Shakespeare-land and appears dead on the steps outside a small village Church; an aristocratic family with a touch of Poe’s House of Usher is implicated.


“The Anodyne Necklace”: A dead busker on the subway, lying before an “Evita” poster; a corpse with a fingerless hand; a small town blackmailed in multi-colored crayon; and a pub that hosts a mean game of Wizards and Warriors.


Machete Kills! : Alex Segura – “Dangerous Ends”

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends” – William Shakespeare, “Henry VI, Part I”

dangerous ends

ABOVE: Presente y Pasado

When I last left Miami P.I. Pete Fernandez, he was venturing “Down the Darkest Street.” Some time has passed and now I find him up to “Dangerous Ends.” His best friend Kathy Bentley has published not one but TWO best-selling true crime books based on his exploits, and so it’s no surprise when he’s contacted (and contracted) by Maya Varela, the daughter of a notorious murderer; she means to exonerate her father, who was convicted on relatively slim evidence for a murder that, Maya insists, he never committed.

But then a jury can’t be expected to stay too rational when a man is accused of hacking his wife dozens of times with a machete, that most Cuban of sharp implements. ( The “Mambi” guerrillas that fought for Cuban independence in the 1860s-1890s had few rifles and often had to resort to what had essentially been a forest-clearing, sugar-cane cutting tool until then.)

elpidio valdes

ABOVE: Educational Cuban cartoons: Teaching kids to slash into “the enemy” since 1959.

Pete’s Cuban ancestry has been a very subtle element in the series, but in “Dangerous Ends,” that Cuban past bluntly intrudes upon the present- as it often does on Miami streets. We learn that Pete’s grand-father Diego was exiled from the island after Fidel Castro’s 1959 take-over; several interludes fill-in the story of the Fernandez family, as Diego becomes an influential, anti-Castro radio personality in Miami.

Does Pete’s abuelo tie to the Varela murder? What about the brutal death of Rick Blanco, the husband of Pete’s lost love, Emily? And who exactly are Los Enfermos, the mysterious drug-running Miami gang that may have ties to the Castro regime?

As the novel asserts at one point, “It’s all connected.”

“Dangerous Ends” is the smoothest Pete Fernandez novel so far, and the one that truly announces Segura as an assured practitioner of the noir. Here, all the elements gel: theme, style, setting, plot, and character working together. The dark and sunny complexities of Miami’s history are explored in terse prose. The plot barrels forward confidently, taking several surprising twists, and opening quite a few possible doors for the next installment. (I can’t wait to read more about the history of Los Enfermos!) The ensemble finally comes into its own too: Kathy goes from foil to full-on no-nonsense partner; Dave Mendoza, the brawn in Fernandez’ investigating team, becomes more psychologically interesting (and more violently volatile?); and a former rival, retired FBI agent Robert Harrass, makes a welcome return, this time as the voice of experience and wisdom. As this series plays with continuity, (major characters fade in the distance; small characters re-appear, and may not be so small next time around) we’re aware that Pete’s world is still in flux, and that any of his peripherals may hide interesting secrets, or may switch allegiances or, you know, may get killed.


P. S.: Like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Pete Fernandez is a music lover, (we get a dutiful visit to Miami’s legendary Sweat Records) and so Sonic Youth and Neil Young and the Jam are alluded to- but it’s the Elena Burke allusion that his grandfather Diego might appreciate. Burke was a remarkable singer of Cuban boleros, great at squeezing longing from each note of her torch songs and somehow transforming that pain into joy. (Daughter Malena Burke is also a major Cuban icon; and grand-daughter Lena is a Latin Grammy nominee. Watch for Ena Burke to play Cuban music on the Moon in 2040.)

elena burke



ABOVE: You can guess which is which


Twice Shy : Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “The Double”

ABOVE: I knew you were double when I met you.

The doppelgängers of German folklore; the mischievous menaechmi in Plautus, or in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”; the Martin Guerres of “The Two Dianas”; the Victorian Jekylls and Hydes. The human is always splitting into two, ( a rather conservative number.) “The Double” is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novella, ( after “Poor Folk”) and it’s a noticeable forward leap that uses Nikolai Gogol’s deadpan satires “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” as inspirational springboards. The plot, (easy enough to guess) finds a shy, undistinguished clerk named Golyadkin confronted with an identical, though far more assertive, look-alike (Golyadkin Jr.) whose unexplained presence goes unquestioned by all except by our ineffective hero.

“Our hero” is how Dostoevsky sardonically refers to Golyadkin,  but this is a hero that undergoes no quest; Dostoevsky as the narrator often demurs that he’s not quite Homer or Pushkin, and this is no epic. Golyadkin Sr. is too much of a nothing to even count as an anti-hero. His typical reaction to the possibility of conflict: “He made up his mind that it was better to keep quiet, not to open his lips, and to show that he was ‘all right,’ that he was ‘like every one else,’ and that his position, as far as he could see, was quite a proper one.”

He frequently fails at this propriety, turning into what in current parlance would be deemed a hot mess: “He felt that if he stammered all would be lost at once. And so it turned out – he stammered and floundered . . . floundering, he blushed crimson; blushing, he was overcome with confusion. In his confusion he raised his eyes; raising his eyes he looked about him; looking about him – he almost swooned.”

Golyadkin is a sketch of the personality type that Dostoevsky would soon examine with considerable less humor in “Notes from the Underground”: socially awkward, mired in constant hesitation, shyness, self-doubt. Here’s the poor clerk’s internal monologue as he tries to crash a cool party:

Mr. Golyadkin saw all this through the little window; in two steps he was at the door and had already opened it. “Should he go in or not? Come, should he or not? I’ll go in . . . why not? to the bold all ways lie open!” Reassuring himself in this way, our hero suddenly and quite unexpectedly retreated behind the screen. “No,” he thought.

He berates himself:

“You silly fool, you silly old Golyadkin – silly fool of a surname!”

I don’t know any Russian beyond “nyet”, “tovarich”, and “sputnik” (thanks a lot, James Bond movies!), but I’m going to guess that the name “Golyadkin” contains some pun the translator, (the ever influential Constance Garnett) doesn’t deal with (something like Mr. Halfaman, perhaps?) No ditz on the late Garnett, (whose epochal translations from the Russian pretty much forced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into the Anglo-American consciousness.)

Above: They’re trying really hard not to make eye contact while they pee.

P. S.: “The Double” was turned by Richard Aoyade into a 2013 movie with Jesse Eisenberg. By abandoning plot specifics, Aoyade creates a little story about alienation that is a little too Eastern-Bloc-in-the-70s to say much about the Golyadkins in today’s cubicles, (a lost opportunity)  – but still marks Aoyade as one of today’s up-and-coming auteurs. (He’s Moss from “The IT Crowd,” if you didn’t know.)

ABOVE: Auteur.


The Three Dumases : Alexandre Dumas – “The Two Dianas”

Much is made of Auguste Maquet’s collaborations with Alexandre Dumas.

ABOVE: Auguste Maquet, the unsung musketeer.

Hard-core fans know Maquet was essential to Dumas’ astoundingly prolific period of the late 1840s. Some have gone on a pro-Maquet campaign that reminds us that of the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” fanatics. The “anti-Shakespeare” gang has apparently decided  everybody alive in the 1500s wrote Shakespeare’s plays EXCEPT Shakespeare, and has produced overheated conspiracy pamphlets like “Anonymous”. By comparison, the moderate pro-Maquet camp admits that Dumas was the genius, but claims Maquet gave his work solid structures he lacked elsewhere. (I agree). A nice, little speculative movie was made of the fractious friendship between the two a few years back. “The Other Dumas” is an overdue if fantastical homage to the forgotten Maquet. (The movie stars Gerard Depardieu as Dumas, as if you even had to wonder.)

ABOVE: “It’s not pronounced Dumb-ass, I keep telling you! You’re fired!”

To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to detract from Dumas’ work. The general consensus is that Maquet did the research, outlines and grunt work; Dumas provided the plot, the wit and panache. Maquet’s own novels are noticeably less engaging – although, and it does bear stressing, hardly terrible. I’ve read a couple and while the uninterested have no need to laboriously seek them out, (they’re only available in French as far as I know), they do have charms. I also strongly believe Maquet is authorially responsible for the character of Chicot in the Valois trilogy: when Maquet went solo after their parting, he took Chicot with him into the novel “The Belle Gabrielle,” under symbolic incognito. (Notice he didn’t try any of that with D’Artagnan or Montecristo, both of which had solid basis in Dumas’ theatrical work and early novels of the ’30s.)

Understandably most of the reviews of “The Other Dumas” lacked familiarity with any of Dumas’ work beyond “The Count of Montecristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” Take this typical article prompted by “The Other Dumas”:


The article mentions little of Dumas’ work beyond the two perennials. It says that “for nearly 20 years the two worked closely together.” Not quite.  It’s true that the date of the first meeting between Dumas and Maquet (1839, when Gerard de Nerval introduced them and Maquet showed Dumas the play that would become “Harmental”) and the date of Maquet’s lawsuit against Dumas (1858) would signal “nearly twenty years of closely working together.” But the real partnership between Dumas and Maquet went from 1842 (starting with the publication of “The Chevalier d’Harmental”) until 1850 (the ending of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.”) That’s eight years, not nearly twenty. Moreover, the “closely together” part of that partnership actually involved the astoundingly prolific FOUR years period between 1844 and 1848 that produced the Count, the Musketeers Trilogy, the Valois Trilogy and the first three Marie Antoinette novels, among others.

Later that same article claims that after the two parted ways, “Dumas wrote nothing else of worth, while Maquet went on to write a lot.” Huh? Dumas went on to write a lot as well and plenty of worth. There were, after all, 22 years after their break, which included newspapers / plays / histories / essays / an epic multi-volume memoir / his classic “Dictionary of Cuisine”  AND at least one (more typically two or three) novels a year, including some big hits like “The Companions of Jehu,” “Emma Lyonna” and “The Mohicans of Paris.” What the writer means to say is that Dumas was ruined after throwing away several fortunes in his lavish lifestyle, while the wiser Maquet saved his pennies and died rich.

ABOVE: Paul Meurice, the other OTHER Dumas?

Anyway, the Dumas- Maquet partnership can only be fully understood in the context of   Dumas’ writer-factory process, which went back to his years as a young theater lion, when plays were co-scripted and passed around. Think of Dumas as the show runner, (the Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan of his time.) Among Dumas’ other collaborators and ghost-writers were De Nerval, the Countess Dash, and the three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, and Paul Meurice. Meurice is more known for his close friendship with Victor Hugo, but he collaborated with Dumas in “Ascanio”

And “The Two Dianas,” which is the book prompting these thoughts.

ABOVE: Wow, someone decided that a drawing of a guy opening a book was an exciting cover for a historical romance!

Quick: It takes place in 1557 and picks up historically more or less directly after “Ascanio”. Gabriel de Montogomery has a problem. He’s in love with Diana de Castro, the illegitimate daughter of Diane de Poitiers and… either Jacques de Montgomery (Gabe’s father) or King Henry II. To complicate maters, Henry II put Jacques away to an indeterminate fate. So Diana de Castro is either Gabriel’s sister … or the daughter of the man who destroyed his father’s life. Dealbreakers everywhere Gabriel turns, so he runs off to sort things out at the Siege of St. Quentin. Nostradamus, Mary Stuart and Ambroise Pare are among the historical figures that parade through the pages.

Some scholarship suggests “The Two Dianas” may very well be entirely of Paul Meurice’s making. There exits a letter in which Dumas seems to give Meurice full authorship of the novel after Meurice asked for permission to prepare a stage version, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough that scholars are still uncertain. The letter could merely be an official business gesture and blessing (as in, “the novel is now yours to do with it as you will”). It’s a great “Dumas” anyway, and fits seamlessly into the canon. Furthermore, some fictional characters from here reappear on “The Page of the Duke of Savoy,” which works as a sequel.

ABOVE: A scene from “Martin Guerre.” They were very musical in 1500s France.

Talking about doubles and twos, “The Two Dianas” features Martin Guerre as Gabriel’s doubled Sancho Panza. Martin Guerre is one of the most famous cases of imposture in the historical record. Guerre was a French peasant who abruptly abandoned his home town in 1548, was thought dead, and reappeared eight years later, in 1556, to return to his wife and family. Except, PLOT TWIST, then the REAL Martin Guerre returned, and the man who had been passing as him for a while was revealed to be a stranger named Arnaud Du Thil. Du Thil was hanged for the fraud, but the oddities of the case – the wife who never said anything! – made a mark. Dumas popularized the Martin Guerre case before, in his massive “The Celebrated Crimes,” but here he uses it to great theatrical effect, (happily shouting out Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus’ “The Menaechmi”.) Mild-mannered Martin Guerre is puzzled by the more daring double of himself who creates mischief everywhere he goes. Dostoevsky’s “The Double”– WITH THE EXACT SAME CONCEIT – was published the same year as “The Two Dianas,” by the way.


Yes, totally. I just like saying “COINCIDENCE?” and raising my eyebrows significantly as I do it. Also I’m reading “The Double” as well so it casts its magic and makes you see doppelgangers everywhere. The “Martin Guerre” case inspired “Sommersby”, a Civil War-set drama starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, as well as a not-too-successful musical adaptation by Boublil and Schomberg, the makers of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” I am a fan of that show in its several attempted incarnations, but I fully accept its flaws, which include some laughably inane English-language lyrics.