Unnatural Causes (P.D. James)

By P.D. James

First published: UK, Faber, 1967

4 stars

James - Unnatural Causes.jpgA well-told murder mystery of the classical sort—e.g., where detection exists, and every character isn’t a psychopath with a penchant for strangling sex dummies in cellars.  It begins in a macabre fashion: the handles corpse of Maurice Seton floating out to sea.  It is then revealed that the victim himself was planning to write a book using the opening setting—and a manuscript page is sent to his secretary with a description of the corpse: a description corresponding exactly to the opening chapter.  The setting is a colony filled with ghastly writers (and two homosexuals).  The character are a remarkable bunch of gargoyles: the crippled secretary, the drunkard homosexual brother, the cruel and cynical drama critic, the effeminate literary editor, the foolish and vapid romantic novelist (who would reappear in Original Sin), and the churlish niece.  Superintendent Dalgliesh is believable and well-drawn in the Strangeways / Alleyn mould, although perhaps it was a mistake to show his poetry.

The murderers spiced with sadism are excellent: the handless corpse of the victim (dead from “natural causes”—hence the title, a nod to Sayers) and his brother (poisoned with an irritant which destroyed his insides).  The murderer is one of the nastiest in all James’s work.  Where others are either partly justified, committing it for another or show some redeeming humanity, only the murderers in The Black Tower and A Taste for Death are as cruel and terrible as this individual.


Times Literary Supplement (Miss Marghanita Laski, 18th May 1967):

Murder in a small literary community in Norfolk, watched and finally solved by Dalgleish, poet, lover, and superintendent of police.  Had he been only the last this would have been a better story, but in its sturdily conventional way it is pleasing enough, with a highly melodramatic ending.


A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

Something of a letdown.  The country-house setting and the characterisation of the unfortunate criminal are excellently handled, and the powerful ending under rushing waters is both credible and mysterious, but the method of murder as well as its cause is farfetched.  Dalgleish has had a tiff with his lover and lets her go out of his life in a psychologically odd instance of inaction.  What next?