“The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life…. He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager; not for this lonely sea; nor for this death.”
—P.D. James, Unnatural Causes (1967)
It’s one of the early murder mysteries featuring Adam Dalgliesh and P D James was still in the process of evolving his persona though the early strands of reserve and ruthlessness easily shine through the piece. It is a gory and brutal murder set in a remote community of literary folks who are as insular and petty as the much maligned English countryside.
Maurice Seton is a murder mystery writer who is very conscientious about researching for the plots he sets up in his novel. While exploring a high-end but shady gambling casino, he seems to have bitten more than he can chew. He washes ashore as a corpse with the graphic description given up. The horror numbs you but when you get to your senses you realizes that it is a ‘dumb’ crime so unlike the skillful capers that usually feature in James’ novels.
Of all wonders the doctor who examines the body says that Seton died of natural causes – a heart attack of sorts. So effectively he reduces the question to one of mutilation of a dead body though Dalgliesh remain skeptical. What sheer malice would have driven such a sadistic act?
Well the reasons are to be found in plenty – Seton’s circle is teemed with people who were bitter and resentful about him for a variety of reasons. Seton’s wife, Dorothy, committed suicide by walking into the sea, his secretary, Sylvia Kedge, was paralysed below her waist in a car accident involving Seton, literary critic Oliver Latham was his wife’s lover and bitter rival, Celia Calthrop a writer of romantic fiction had little regard for Seton as a writer, half-brother Digby resented Seton for his apparent success and riches while he struggled in life … There is no lack of motives here but in true trademark style everyone wants to flourish an alibi as well.
The story progress as a procedural on crime and detection though Dalgliesh makes a masterly hunch about Seton being induced to die by exploiting his claustrophobia. The dredging up of the monstrous contraption is a skillful deduction though the plotting seem far-fetched. It keeps you hooked nonetheless as things rapidly close-in on ‘Digby’ – Seton’s half-brother. Dalgliesh watchers know that simple solutions are rare in his mysteries so we waver in having sympathy for the bloke as being set-up as a fall guy or wonder that there is a bigger conspiracy that remains to be unmasked.
The narrative is linear and straightforward. There aren’t many sub-plots but couple of threads run in parallel. Dalgliesh is also investigating a casino for being involved as a front for money laundering and his romance with Deborah Riscoe that started in his debut novel, ‘Cover Her Face’ is in crisis and at the verge of a break point.
Most of the strands end unsatisfactorily in the novel – so the eventual unmasking on the murderer and the motives that led to the crime bring us back to where it all began. It is far-fetched and quite a hare-brained scheme. So Maurice Seton had a plot suggestion of a body floating back ashore on a dinghy with its hands severed at the wrist. Well surely no one expected him to oblige us by pulling the act as part of ‘researching’ for his novel?
Its early days in the ‘James- Dalgliesh’ journey. She moved on strength to strength from here to eventually write 14 Adam Dalgliesh mysteries spanning a period of over 45 years.