RogerBW's Blog

Unnatural Causes, P. D. James 19 July 2018

1967 detective fiction, third of James's novels of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgleish is on holiday, visiting his aunt's cottage on the Suffolk coast; but one of the local writers has gone missing, and soon the police announce that his body has been found.

This is a cunning one. As usual everyone is horrid, but less usually everyone manages to have their virtues too; the killer's motive (announced, after a surprising action scene, in a taped confession) may appear weak, but it seemed to me the perfect motive for that particular killer. These are well-observed people… in a setting that makes rather less sense, with all these writers more or less detesting each other but still choosing to have their cottages in the same place (with nothing by way of facilities – no noticeable village, never mind a village shop). One significant figure is very obviously a red herring, and mostly wastes pages – odd when the ending feels so hasty.

The book's less bound to its time than the first two, perhaps because most of it takes place at a remove from the action of the world; some talk about the tawdriness of night-clubs puts it as "not in the present day", but it could fit anywhere from the 1950s to the 1970s. A piece of business with rail tickets is perhaps inspired by Sayers, though a mention of the murdered writer's work seems more like a parody:

Briggs, who was occasionally called Briggsy by the Honourable Martin in an excess of spurious camaraderie, had a humility which they hadn't detected in [the actual Inspector]. Despite his eminence at the Yard Briggsy was always happy to play second fiddle to Carruthers, and so far from resenting the Honourable Martin's interference with his cases, made a practice of calling him in when his special expertise was required. Since Carruthers was an expert on wine, women, heraldry, the landed gentry, esoteric poisons and the finer points of the minor Elizabethan poets, his opinion was frequently invaluable.

In fact this ends up being rather more about Dalgleish than the previous books: he's not the official investigator, and he's considering a significant personal decision (one reason for his holiday). There's a significant amount of quiet reflection that leaves this series lead looking rather more interesting and appealing.

Followed by Shroud for a Nightingale.

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Previous in series: A Mind To Murder | Series: Adam Dalgliesh | Next in series: Shroud for a Nightingale

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