“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
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…
…. 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.
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.