RogerBW's Blog

A Mind To Murder, P. D. James 16 June 2018

1963 detective fiction, second of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. In a London psychiatric clinic that's still adjusting to being part of the NHS, the unpopular chief administrator is stabbed in the heart. Any of the staff could have done it, and most of them had reason to; but who is guilty?

To my mind there are rather too many of them for any of their personalities to become fully developed, but they're soon sorted into the first and second ranks of suspects. Nobody here seems to be happy, much as in Cover Her Face; they're stupid, rigid, social climbing, sleeping with people they shouldn't be, not sleeping with people they shouldn't be but feeling bad about it, and so on.

Dr. Etherege slowly traced the line of his right eyebrow with his middle finger. Dalgliesh had seen him do this on television and reflected, now as then, that it served to draw attention to a fine hand and a well-shaped eyebrow even if as an indication of serious thought the gesture seemed slightly spurious.

For all James decried psychological murder mysteries in her first novel, that's certainly what this one is. With all these broken people, one is challenged to work out which of them is broken in such a way as to murder.

He had also heard of Mr. X's book, an opus of some two hundred thousand words in which the scabrous episodes are inserted with such meticulous deliberation that it only requires an exercise in simple arithmetic to calculate on what page the next will occur. Dalgliesh did not suspect X of any part in the murder. A writer who could produce such a hotchpotch of sex and sadism was probably impotent and certainly timid. But he was not necessarily a liar.

There are some more conventional clues to solve too, mostly in terms of who was where when, who might have had access to particular information, and so on. The resolution combines both, and although there's a clear "you should have solved this by now" signal, the book isn't over at that point.

Dalgliesh himself is still something of a cipher: he mourns his dead wife, he has neuralgia, he fancies someone who was a suspect in a previous case but hasn't done anything about it. (And this is the early 1960s, so he has to, really; she can't make the running.) He's a collection of these traits more than he is a person.

There's interesting period detail about the developing NHS, where each clinic might still have its own management committee but was subject to higher authority. (And when LSD therapy and ECT sat side by side.) And a surprising moment for me when someone wonders why a cat isn't "let" (i.e. put) out at night; yeah, OK, I suppose that did still happen as late as the 1960s.

Not at all a cheerful book, and I could really have done with some more sympathetic characters, but it holds together and some of the character portraiture is excellent. Followed by Unnatural Causes.

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Previous in series: Cover Her Face | Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: Unnatural Causes

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 04:58pm on 16 June 2018

    Cats are still put out at night where my parents live in Yorkshire.

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