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Book Review – Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 3) by P. D. James

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Book Description:

Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh had been looking forward to a quiet holiday at his aunt’s cottage on Monksmere Head, one of the furthest-flung spots on the remote Suffolk coast. With nothing to do other than enjoy long wind-swept walks, tea in front of the crackling wood fire and hot buttered toast, Dalgliesh was relishing the thought of a well-earned break.

However, all hope of peace is soon shattered by murder. The mutilated body of a local crime writer, Maurice Seaton, floats ashore in a drifting dinghy to drag Adam Dalgliesh into a new and macabre investigation.

*

“The only drawback to planning and carrying out a perfect murder is that no one else can appreciate it.”

Unnatural Causes by P. D. James is the third book in her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries (originally published back in 1967). It’s one of the early P. D. James books that I’m just now getting around to reading. In this third outing, Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh escapes to what he hopes to be a “solitary, uncomplicated holiday” at his aunt’s cottage – far away from complicated London and his lover Deborah Riscoe. Alas, his wish was not to be… As satirized by Terry Pratchett on his Discworld Novel Snuff: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse.” Well, at least Adam Dalgliesh was able to have time to sit down for his first holiday dinner before the first corpse turned up 😉

Unnatural Causes opens with the bizarre tableau of a dapper dressed corpse (with missing hands) adrift on a small boat off the Suffolk coast. The body turns out to be that of the local mystery novelist Maurice Seaton, neighbor to Dalgliesh’s own Aunt Jane. Being out of his jurisdiction, Adam Dalgliesh finds himself in the unaccustomed (and very frustrating) position of having to watch someone else’s investigation – especially when he does not agree with the conclusions of the local police (Detective Inspector Reckless).

Unfortunately, after that very interesting start, I’m afraid that I found the next chapters to be a very slow read – it took me forever (!) to read the rest of the novel as I kept on either getting sleepy or distracted. It was very, very slow going as we were introduced to the suspects (all of whom seemed to be pretty deplorable characters) and really, hardly anything happened, other than Dalgliesh getting more and more irritated (and he wasn’t the only one!). Things only got interesting again much later on in the book – when Dalgliesh became angry enough to start his own investigation in an ‘unofficial capacity’ and of course, when a second corpse turns up (there’s always a second one, right?).

P. D. James manages to get her groove back though, and finishes up with a pretty fantastic and exciting last quarter that ties up all the loose ends together. I like to guess the identity of the killer myself, but in this case, I wasn’t even close! Very clever finish by P. D. James! And of course, I am in awe with how she just manages to so poetically string words together. I mean, which crime fiction writer still writes like this?

The night pressed around her. She breathed darkness like a physical weight. It was as if the air had thickened with night, had become a heaviness through which she had to fight her way.

Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 3) by P. D. James is available on Amazon as a Paperback Edition and Audible Audio Edition. *Amazon UK has a Kindle edition

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Book Review – A Mind to Murder (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 2) by P. D. James

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Book Description:

A piercing scream, shattering the evening calm, brings Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh hurrying from his literary party to the nearby Steen Psychiatric Clinic, where he discovers the body of a woman sprawled on the basement floor, a chisel thrust through her heart. As Dalgliesh probes beneath the apparently unruffled calm of the clinic, he discovers that many an intrigue lies hidden behind the Georgian terrace’s unassuming façade.

Professionally, he has never known the taste of failure. Now, for the first time, he feels unsure of his own mastery as he battles to unmask a cool killer who is proving to be his intellectual equal, and who is poised to strike again.

With “discernment, depth, and craftsmanship,” wrote the Chicago Daily News, A Mind to Murder “is a superbly satisfying mystery.”

*

A Mind to Murder by P. D. James is the second book in her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, initially published way back in 1963. I’m a huge fan of P. D. James’ mystery books, so I’ve been trying to read her older works (thanks to the library!). A Mind to Murder is nowhere as good as her later books though, so I really wouldn’t recommend it to introduce P.D. James to possible new fans. This book is best enjoyed by ardent fans who want to read everything P. D. James wrote (and know that she becomes a legendary crime writer in the future).

A Mind to Murder takes place three years after Cover Her Face (here’s my review of the first book), and Adam Dalgliesh (who has been promoted to Superintendent, while enjoying new success as a published poet) is called in to discreetly investigate the stabbing murder of the administrative head of the Steen Psychiatric Clinic. The victim (Miss Bolam) was not a particularly popular woman with the staff in the clinic – and suspects range from a bunch of doctors without alibis, to a cousin who stands to inherit Miss Bolam’s considerable fortune.

In this second book, P.D. James already has her trademark obsessive attention to detail down pat, and I liked that she had started to build the fascinatingly emo character of Dalgliesh. The plot is simpler than in the first book , but James peppers it with many red-herrings, such that I was really surprised by the identity of the killer in the end. However, I felt that the twist that revealed the murderer seemed really contrived (it really threw me and really came from nowhere), and I was also disappointed that the characters (or suspects) were mostly not as fleshed-out as I liked.

(I did find it really funny that LSD was being used as a helpful drug for loosening the ‘inhibitions’ of psychiatric patients in the Steen Clinic. Nice touch of history lesson for me!)

A Mind to Murder (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 2) by P. D. James is available on Amazon as a Paperback Edition and Audible Audio Edition. *The Kindle Edition is not available in the US


For a second opinion – here’s some reviews of A Mind to Murder by other bloggers:

  • Newton Reads – “* * * * Very, very good”
  • Mystery*File – “Authenticity is the strong point of this book, along with the writing,which is civilized and perceptive”
  • Dwell in Possibility – “Two thumbs up from me”

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Book Review – ‘Cover Her Face’ by P.D. James

July 12, 2010 1 comment

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Book Description:

St Cedd’s Church fete had been held in the grounds of Martingale Manor House for generations. As if organizing stalls, as well as presiding over luncheon, the bishop and the tea tent, were not enough for Mrs Maxie on that mellow July afternoon, she also had to contend with the news of her son’s sudden engagement to her new parlour maid, the sly single mother, Sally Jupp.

On the following morning Martingale and the whole village are shocked by the discovery of Sally Jupp’s body. Investigating the violent death at the manor house, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is embroiled in the complicated passions beneath the calm surface of English village life.

Cover Her Face‘ was P.D. James’ first foray into the crowded crime novel market; it also marked the introduction of her now famous Adam Dalgliesh to the public. I was surprised to learn that this one came out back in the dark ages of 1962! I’m glad that P.D. James is still going strong, what with ‘The Private Patient‘ being published as recently as 2008.

The book is divided into two acts, much like a play. In Part One, P.D. James sets a glacial pace as we slowly go through the events that lead to the locked-room murder of the parlour maid (turned soon-to-be lady of the house) Sally Japp. We meet the suspects : Mrs. Eleanor Maxie (matriarch of Martingale), her son & Martingale heir Dr. Stephen (yup, the one who actually proposes marriage to the maid), her daughter Deborah (SPOILER : if you’ve read the Adam Dalgiesh books, then you know that she’s Dalgiesh’s future girlfriend, so I was mighty curious to meet her), Catherine Bowers (nurse and ex-girlfriend of Stephen), Felix Hearne (WW2 hero and lover of Deborah) and Martha Bultitaft (the long-time maid at Martingale). And in their midst, the soon-to-be victim (beautiful, smart, ambitious, manipulative, secretive) Sally Japp who everyone kind of hates. Part Two is when we get to meet the Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh who goes about methodically interviewing everyone and finally gathers everyone in the study for the final denouement.

Oh, yeah, that cliched ‘locked room murder’ and ‘gather all the suspects in the study to reveal the murderer’ bits? Yup, P.D. James really went there in her debut novel. Although, to be fair, maybe that wasn’t so cliched back in 1962? I’ve only read P.D. James’ more recent books featuring Dalgiesh where he’s already the Commander, and I have to say, there’s a huge difference in the quality of writing when comparing this first effort and say, the truly excellent ‘Shroud for a Nightingale‘. Which is good, right? What I’ve noticed is that many authors release these fantastic debut novels and then they never quite live up to the magical quality of the first one… At least, P.D. James got better and better through the years.

In short, not too impressed with this one. I thought the pacing was plodding, the characters stereotypical and there’s too little Adam Dalgiesh. Plus, I guessed pretty early on who the murderer was, mostly because P.D. James was practically telegraphing it! I wouldn’t recommend this book when trying to convince someone that P.D. James ranks right up there with all the other English crime novelist greats. But if you’re a longtime fan of P.D. James, this is a chance to meet the younger Dalgiesh and see him at work before he gets into his stride in the later novels of the series. A book really for the completist fan.

There’s no Kindle edition for ‘Cover Her Face’, but you can order used copies on Amazon. Book Depository also sells copies (if you live internationally, check them out since they deliver world wide with no shipping fees). Better yet, just check if your local library still carries a copy.

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