An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery – ‘Unnatural Causes’ by P D James

“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)

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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.

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Review of ‘The Murder Room’ by P D James

Complicated lives, fraught relationships, angst-ridden souls in the backdrop of the modern world and chaos is an enduring theme in all P D James novels. And she doesn’t disappoint us on that count even as she weaves a classic ‘whodunnit’ set up in a museum dedicated to crime and murder in Britain during the interwar years of 1919 – 1939.

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The 12th novel in the Adam Dalgliesh series, we have the familiar characters of Ackroyd, Kate Miskin, Piers Tarrant and Emma. Dalgliesh remains a recluse professional but love is in the air as his relationship makes progress with Emma. (The heroine – if one were to use the term – is named after a famous character by Jane Austen who was P D James’ favorite writer’).

Even in her past novels, James has given her readers a flavor of real life crime history and the judicial system. Herein she sets the story in a quaint little museum that is dedicated to archive criminal history and artifacts from the interwar period in Britain. Ackroyd introduces Dalgliesh to the museum that is facing the prospect of closure as it is not viable in commercial terms. The Dupayne family are the patrons who need to decide on its future and whether they continue to subsidize it.

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‘The skull beneath the skin’ by P D James

Published in 1982, the murder mystery’s title echoes James’ favorite belief in examining the psychological aspects of crime rather than doing lot of legwork.

It is a classic murder mystery – a remote island in a Victorian setting and a close ring of suspects. We do not have Adam Dalgliesh on the spot – instead it marks the second outing for private eye, Cordelia Gray, after the successful adventure of ‘An Unsuitable Job For A Woman’.

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 Agatha Christie did it very successfully in her tale, ‘Ten Little Indians’. And so we have James attempt the classic genre now – a desolate island, a leading actress in the twilight of her failing career as a Shakespearean heroine, the various people in her life and proprietor of Pryde Detective Agency – Cordelia Gray who has been tasked with the work of protecting the diva’s life and to solve the mystery behind the death threats she has received. The threats are literary quotations related chiefly to Shakespeare’s work and are printed on an ordinary paper embellished on the top with the drawing of a skull with crossbones.

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Review of ‘Road Rage’ by Ruth Rendell

Baroness P D James and Baroness Ruth Rendell were contemporary writers of murder mysteries and went on to create successful series of novels for the ‘Gentlemen-Detective’ prototype a.ka. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford respectively.

While I have been a great fan of Dalgliesh, I am yet to explore the world of Wexford in detail. ‘Road Rage’ is the first murder mystery that I read based on his exploits and all along I had a mental game running on him v/s Dalgliesh. Overall I am excited enough to continue to further delve into the adventures of the mild-mannered and rather self-effacing Chief Inspector.

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Well the novel is more of a drama than a murder mystery – it does not quite race like a thriller. Characterization is done well for Inspector Wexford but most of the rest of the characters are quite incidental with the notable exception of his sidekick, Inspector Burden. Rather disappointing is the shadowy nature of the protagonist – while the end comes as a surprise it does not quite hold you in thrall since there are not many suspects to begin with and final unravelling is incidental and a means to bring the story to an end.

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Phyllis Dorothy James – an ode to a Nightingale!

A journey has come to an end – her life was a living message that we ought to battle and overcome challenges facing us. And it was a celebration of ageing with grace – she achieved stupendous success as a writer in her golden years and lost none of her prowess while penning her last novel when she was 90 years old.

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Like a novel she wrote, she was an original Nightingale – her tones were rich in truth and fidelity.  And that is such a rare commodity in today’s world where everyone is trying to manage the optics and a spin is the convenient reality that is fed to the masses.

There is enough that we know and admire about P D James as a writer. Surprisingly she started writing rather late with her first novel appearing when she was 42 of age and was an inspiring tribute to the murder mystery genre in the tradition of Agatha Christie. A bright spark was seen that went on establish her long reign as the ‘Queen of Crime’. Continue reading “Phyllis Dorothy James – an ode to a Nightingale!”

Review of ‘Innocent Blood’ by P D James

It is a classic crime novel yet again though there is no Adam Dalgliesh on the scene. In fact it is a departure from her series of ‘whodunits’ but at a psychological level it is still a thriller and the final dénouement is crisp and taut.

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So we join Philippa Palfrey, a young upper class girl who was adopted, in search of her roots. The story seems terrible enough when she discovers the unsavoury background of her parents and in particular that her mother is a murderess who has served out 10 years of life sentence and is at the verge of being released. James adds a further twist by letting a counterplot appear where yet another murder is being planned. Finally she produces a nice twist in the tale towards the end.

James seems to be intrigued by illegitimacy and adoption / foster parenting as a theme. We are familiar with Kate Miskin’s struggle – she was brought up by her maternal grandmother after her mother died at childbirth and was unfortunate enough not to know about her father. In Kate it bought a tough spirit and a determination to extricate herself from the sordid surroundings of her childhood. Kate is intelligent and street smart but of course she is not an upper class denizen of the metropolis. Continue reading “Review of ‘Innocent Blood’ by P D James”

Review of ‘The Black Tower’ by P D James

At less than 300 pages, the novel is a slick thriller that is pulsating with action. In all we have 5 murders – 2 appear to be natural death, 2 appear to be suicide / accidental death while the final one is a true blue murder. Add one more death to the list when the antagonist decides to end the tale in style by leaping of the crumbling cliff.

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Dalgliesh, convalescing from a recent illness and contemplating to retire, meets a formidable foe with whom he battles right to the end on the scenic Dorset coast. James’ brings the action to a quick close with Dalgliesh being spared a tumultuous death by his foe who could have taken him along. The novel ends on a positive note with Dalgliesh rediscovering his appetite for the job.

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James shows early signs of mastering characterization and the plot that we so admire in many of the murder mysteries in the Adam Dalgliesh series. The novel could have been titled, ‘The reluctant detective’ as well since Dalgliesh is contemplating abdication and the events from his view-point seem trivial. She employs a clever device in letting the reader know that we are dealing with a chain of murders while the events look natural to the observer.

Dalgliesh nonchalance can be maddening and lead you to doubt whether he has lost his mojo. By doing this she achieves the impact she aims for – the only interesting question was that not many thrillers were written with such subtle mechanisms. The usual approach was to shock the reader and then ‘get on with the job’.

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Review of ‘Death In Holy Orders’ by P D James

An interesting murder mystery and James is in top form in serving us a classic whodunnit along with a full-fledged novel with strong characters and an intricate plot.

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Set in an unusual locale of a remote theological college on a crumbling coastline, the physical decay and daily battle with sea is like an allegory of the state of affairs of the religion as well in the modern 21st Century. We are provided a bird’s-eye view of alternate voices – an unpopular one of an Archdeacon who views the college to be too elitist and archaic to serve the needs of the new millennium.

The murder mystery is not so engrossing, but the narrative is rich in character and content – the face-off between Archdeacon Crampton and Warden Sebastian Morrell are like ‘David v/s Goliath’. But there is a twist in the tale and James ensures that not many a reader would mourn the brutal death of the Archdeacon.

The tale has an innocuous beginning – Dalgliesh has planned a vacation in Suffolk and doesn’t mind visiting St. Anselm to enquire about a suspicious death of a student. The visit is a mix of business (allaying the concerns of a rich and powerful father who was not good terms with his deceased son) and pleasure (Dalgliesh had spent his vacations as an adolescent in the college and has many happy memories including that of Father Martin).

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Review of ‘Death of an Expert Witness’ by P D James

The opening scene is of a young woman being found strangled in a chalk clunch field in East Anglia but it is just a side light. The story is about the murder of a Forensic Scientist and is set in the unique location of a Forensic Lab.

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Yet another successful whodunnit by P D James, the narrative is taut and racy like a thriller as Dalgliesh along with Massingham unveils the mystery rapidly within two days.

It is one of the earlier novels of Dalgliesh and we are gradually made aware about his personality and life. We are introduced to Dalgliesh the poet who has tragically lost his wife and son in the childbirth gone wrong. Dalgliesh who is an efficient and effective detective with the Scotland Yard but who brings a humane approach to policing and investigation. Dalgliesh is given to digress from the story and we get certain gems due to his abstractions. He is asked a poser by a veteran who asks him to explain the difference between Management and Administration.

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The career of Adam Dalgliesh by P D James

English actor, Roy Marsden, played the role of Adam Dalgliesh from the Scotland Yard for 15 years and chronicled 10 of the 14 murder mysteries authored by Baroness P D James featuring the ‘dour detective and private poet’ character.

Dalgliesh was introduced by P D James in her début novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962 and went onto appear for 46 years till the final appearance in 2008 in the novel, The Private Patient. The character has not aged much during the period though James succeeded in deepening his profile and retain the reader’s interest in the professional and personal exploits of an unconventional but effective policeman who is a rector’s son and has a private code of ethics and morality.

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The chronology of his appearances across the last 5 decades is summarized below and I have added my review links to the same. I plan to complete reviews for all the novels though a few are pending at the moment.

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