Jamesian Inquiry Part 1: A Mind to Murder

A Mind to Murder You have to admire someone who creates a workable formula and then sticks to it. P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh books are set in a cloistered (in one case truly!) often claustrophobic community. Work is usually the source of the community as well as the source of the tensions and rivalries. Office politics create the initial tensions: who wants whose job, who’s obsession with the rules is making everyone’s life miserable, who is a nasty git, who is a mess, etc.The rules of the profession are up for examination with the definition of success, and what it takes to be successful, playing a major part.

Psychiatry is the profession under examination in A Mind to Murder (AMTM), P. D. James’ second Adam Dalgliesh book published in 1963. The treatments are were up-to-the-minute back in ‘63 but dated today – LSD, deep analysis and out-patient ECT – still it is interesting to see how these treatments are discussed. Compared to her later books, the Steen Clinic is a back drop rather than a vortex. Aside from the hints of  “psychiatrist shrink your own head” James doesn’t say all that much about the profession itself. She does use the conceits of the profession, however, with the doctors feeling themselves perfectly qualified to state a theory of the crime along with conclusions about the identity of the killer.

The crime, the murder of the Miss Bolam, strikes most characters as an annoyance rather than a tragedy. That in itself sets this book apart. While several of the characters harbor a dislike for Miss Bolam none demonstrates a true hatred of her. Sustaining a mystery when the crime itself is so cold blooded isn’t easy, you can’t have a whodunit if it’s a case of who cares. James handles this by making it less about “who would kill Miss Bolam?” and more “who among this bunch could so totally lose their cool?” The who isn’t all that difficult to figure out. James drops several Christie-style hints along the way. There is one deductive leap that Dalgliesh makes that was a bit too wide for my taste. How he went from one phone call to blackmail could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Compared to her later books, AMTM is a lesser effort. The characters are less well-drawn and less compelling but it’s only to be expected that a good writer would strive to get better. There are a few interesting hints of what is to come. A minor scene draws in religion, a subject which features prominently in later books. Two scenes set up Dalgliesh’s relationship with Deborah Riscoe and its eventual demise.

One of the pleasures of a James’ mystery is the attention she pays to the impact of the murder on the other characters. How perfectly reasonable that proximity to a murder and the subsequent investigation would cause an examination of one’s own life. AMTM features an epilogue of sorts with the office busybody filling Adam in all the changes that have taken place since the case wrapped up. It’s a nice touch and although it’s a bit obvious, it reminds me how other Dalgliesh books have left me wondering what became of the characters once the police left.

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