25.10.09

P. D. James's A Mind to Murder


Baroness James of Holland Park – better known to mystery novel fans as P.D. James – is not only still going strong at 89 but also continuing to write at the top of her game. This life peer has been called a literary novelist, the Queen of Crime, and even the Dickens of crime writing. James has an impressive list of honours, awards, and honorary doctorates. Her newest book – Talking about Detective Fiction – is an insightful examination of the mystery novel genre.

A Mind to Murder is the second in a series starring the police detective, Adam Dalgliesh. The novel opens with the loud screams of a woman piercing the quiet of an upscale, London-based psychiatric clinic. The staff rush to the basement and find their administrative assistant lying dead with a chisel though her heart. The head psychiatrist locks the doors so that no one can get in or out; everyone realizes that the murderer is among their midst.

Dalgliesh is summoned and none of the three psychiatrists have alibis for the time of the murder. The storyline itself is intricately plotted and cleverly worked out. The ending is a surprise twist for the reader.

As the detective questions the suspects, we get to know the secret lives and relationships of all who work in this closed world. James spends consider time depicting the ambitions, intrigues, secrets, and grudges of all the suspects. Her novels are character-driven, and her treatment of characters’ motives, masterful. They have a psychological complexity and richness that make them unforgettable.

Dalgliesh is one of the most popular detectives in the genre. His wife and son died in childbirth, so he channels all his energy into his job. Surprisingly, he is also an accomplished poet. According to Brockes, fellow crime writer, Ruth Rendell, identifies Dalgliesh as “the sort of person readers like to think the police might be like – sensitive and elegant, not elitist like Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey. He is the sort of person you wouldn’t mind being interviewed by.”

James’s novels have a powerful sense of place that grounds the mysteries. Because she worked as an administrative assistant in hospitals and the police force, she is able to provide a strong factual underpinning for the novel.

James, P. D. A Mind to Murder. Toronto, ON: Seal Books, 1963.