After spending two books giving the reader glimpses of the soul of her detective, in Unnatural Causes P.D. James pulled him out of his natural environment by sending him on holiday. This means that both James and Dalgliesh can ponder murder and murder investigations from the outside for a change, but ponder it still. James also tackles head on Dalgliesh’s willful solitariness and his peculiar emotional inertia – is he willing to change his life enough to share it permanently with Deborah Riscoe – placing him in a community of self-absorbed writers.
James dissects what it means to be a semi-successful writer from several angles. There’s the romance writer who peddles convention to make a living and the mystery writer who is past his prime. Both must grapple with the knowledge that their work will not outlast them, that it is not respected and that they are not even successful by their own standards. Publically they guard their own claim to be "artists” while snipping away at one another.
This community of writers is most interested in Dalgliesh because he is a police detective. They don’t seem at all impressed or intrigued that he is also a published poet. It’s such an obvious flip of responses, usually someone has to point out the incongruity of a detective writing poetry, that I had to wonder if James was making a joke.
Dalgliesh is downright cranky on occasion in Unnatural Causes. James showed up glimpses of his pride and self-regard before but this time she lets him be, well, human. At least on the inside. He’s put out that there’s a murder to contend with during his vacation. He’s annoyed that everyone seems to think he has a part to play in solving the crime. Not that he voices much of this. The hardest thing to like about Adam Dalgliesh is his self-control.
The source of that self-control appears as disinterest to others. The most revered of the writers in Monks Head asserts that Dalgliesh chose his line of work because it gives him permission to be “uninvolved”. This is James striking at the heart of her own character: Dalgliesh wants to investigate murder, he wants to understand the crime and the criminal but he does not want to be involved in it in any meaningful way. He wants to observe, to intellectualize, but not to feel. Placed in proximity to murder but not an official capacity to investigate it he has to feel his reactions to the suspects and the victim, to resent the official intrusion into his life. What makes James a great writer is that she does this without resorting to making Dalgliesh a suspect. When faced with his aunt’s own calm acceptance that so twisted an evil in the form of the murderer had been part of her daily life Dalgliesh is staggered by what he considers her “uninvolvement.”
James is having fun in Unnatural Causes starting with the obvious homage to Dorothy L Sayers. From the title’s nod to Unnatural Death to comments about “in the teeth of the evidence” to the body on the beach the book is filled with touches that place the book and the series in the Golden Age of Mystery tradition.