Photo by Katarzyna Korobczuk on Unsplash
Unnatural Causes, by P.D. James
P.D. James, now deceased , was one of the Doyennes of the thriller genre, surely in terms of her ubiquity on a par with Agatha Christie, if not as prolific; although twenty one fiction publications is no small achievement. That being the case, I thought it was time that I read & reviewed one of her stories; I have watched a few of the television dramatisations featuring the same actor in the lead rôle of Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, although whether he began his fictional career in this elevated professional position remains to be seen. One departure from this book was that the TV version drove an E-type Jaguar, so very redolent of the 1960s in which these stories are set, whereas here, Dalgliesh drives a Cooper Bristol, which according to an internet image search, has taken many different forms: some single seat racing cars, but also 2-seater touring versions, so it is most likely that Dalgliesh’s would have been one of those.
Our protagonist begins the story by hoping to enjoy a well-deserved holiday, after a very demanding case in London, where he is based, staying with his maiden aunt Jane on the Suffolk coast. Needless to say, a death is discovered within hours of his arrival; it is not immediately obvious that the man has been murdered, but this assessment is complicated by the fact that both his hands had been removed post mortem. This is bad enough in itself, but this exact scenario, where the victim in placed into a small rowing boat and sent out into the bay below the village where Dalgliesh is staying, and his aunt lives, was suggested to the victim, who was an author of murder fiction, by a local woman, who has somewhat exaggerated expectations of authorship herself, normally confining herself to more romantic subjects. This doesn’t automatically make her a suspect, but it is uncomfortably coincidental. Of course, there are other residents of the small village who could also have had reasons to want to kill the victim, so Dalgliesh can use his historical local knowledge to assist the Inspector from the local force, who is in charge of the investigation: Dalgliesh is well aware of the limits of his influence here.
Some of the scenes in which possible suspects are questioned are quite theatrical in their nature, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and the prose style does read as somewhat dated, but it is predominantly correct, which is quite refreshing, in today’s world of slipping literary standards. It is not entirely surprising that the culprit turns out to be someone who could have too easily been discounted, but the way in which the murder is constructed & executed is quite inventive; Dalgliesh unmasks the killer, of course! After that, he is possibly quite relieved to be going back to work. The paperback I read was published in 2019  by Faber & Faber Limited, London [F&F], ISBN 978-0-5713-5079-7.