Book review: “A Mind to Murder” by P.D. James

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Book review: “A Mind to Murder” by P.D. James

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A Mind to Murder, published in 1963, was the second mystery novel by P.D. James to center on British police detective Adam Dalgliesh, and it shows James as a still-developing writer.

The plot is more than a bit complicated, having to do with the murder of the office manager of a psychiatric clinic, and the relationships among the suspects are intertwined in an awkwardly proliferation.  What I mean is that, in three cases, two suspects are having or have had affairs with one another — a total of six people in all, or nearly the entire suspect pool.

Yet, those inelegances are rather minor inasmuch as, already, James is showing herself to be a serious writer, more interested in personality and character than in “characters” and plot.  This is evidenced in her evocations of the various personalities in the clinic, but, most, in her descriptions of Dalgliesh, a minor poet and major crime-solver.

He feels a great deal

For one thing, Dalgliesh is very much unlike the cold, calculating detectives of many other authors.  Indeed, he feels a great deal, such as when he considers that the slaying could as easily been the work of a woman as a man.

He pictured for a moment an intent, pretty face bent over Miss Bolam’s body; a thin, girlish hand slipping open the sweater buttons and rolling up the fine cashmere jumper.  And then, that clinical selection of exactly the right place to pierce, and the grunt of effort as the blade went home.  And, last of all, the sweater drawn lightly back to conceal the chisel handle, the ugly fetish [sculpture] placed in position on the still twitching body in an ultimate gesture of derision and defiance.

Of course, those sentences showcase the ability of James to see and describe the look of things.  Most important, though, is what they say about Dalgliesh, a man who can, as one human being to another, put himself into the mind of a killer.

And not just a killer, but also a victim, such as, a few moments later, when he says:

“There must have been one dreadful moment when she looked up and saw her murderer with the fetish raised, but it happened very quickly.  She would feel nothing after she was stunned.”

“Her certainty, her self-sufficiency”

Often in the novel, Dalgliesh puts himself into the mind of other characters, some of whom are simply innocents caught up in the search for the killer, and some of whom are under suspicion, such as Frederica Saxon.

They meet by chance awkwardly at a Catholic church and decide to share coffee as well as some insights about the clinic and the people there.  When they are done, Saxon insists on paying for her own coffee which leads Dalgliesh to thinking:

She doesn’t want to feel that I bought information from her, thought Dalgliesh, not even a shilling’s worth.  He resisted the temptation to say that the coffee could come from expenses, wondering a little at this impulse to sarcasm which she aroused in him.  He liked her, but there was something about her certainty, her self-sufficiency, which he found irritating.  Perhaps what he felt was envy.

“The fourteenth candle”

While appearing eminently self-sufficient and competent, there is an element of deep uncertainty in the detective.  He has been single since the death of his wife in childbirth, and he had come to the church on a private errand before bumping into Saxon:

Early Monday morning, the anniversary of his wife’s death, Dalgliesh called in at a small Catholic church behind the Strand to light a candle.  His wife had been Catholic.  He had not shared her religion and she had died before he could begin to understand what it meant to her or what importance this fundamental different between them might have for their marriage.  He had lit the first candle on the day she died out of the need for formalize an intolerable grief and, perhaps, with a childish hope of somehow comforting her spirit.  This was the fourteenth candle.

Although nearly a decade and a half earlier, his wife’s death still colors his life.  Consider the detective’s thoughts when, during a tour of the victim’s apartment, he sees flowers in a vase:

Dalgliesh did not like autumn flowers, the chrysanthemums which obstinately refuse to die, flaunting their shaggy heads even on a rotting stem, scentless dahlias fit only to be planted in near rows in municipal parks.  His wife had died in October and he had long recognized the minor bereavements which follow the death of the heart.  Autumn was no longer a good time of the year.  For him the flowers in Miss Bolman’s flat emphasized the general air of gloom, like wreaths at a funeral.

“Lost your own soul”

Dalgliesh lives in an existential funk.  Of course, we all do, but many of us are able to keep the confusion, dread and sorrow of life at bay.  Not him, not so much.

Like a child picking at a scab on a knee, Dalgliesh picks at his actions and his presence and his awareness of life and its many complications.

His job, in which he could deceive himself that non-involvement was a duty, had given him glimpses into the secret lives of men and women whom he might never see again except as half-recognized faces in a London crowd.  Sometimes he despised his private image, the patient, uninvolved, uncensorious inquisitor of other people’s misery and guilt.  How long could you stay detached, he wondered, before you lost your own soul?

Dalgliesh is human.  The subject of all literature is the human being.  In A Mind to Murder, James is already grappling with the questions at the heart of human existence.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.21.19

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