Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh had been looking forward to a quiet holiday at his aunt’s cottage on Monksmere Head, one of the furthest-flung spots on the remote Suffolk coast. With nothing to do other than enjoy long wind-swept walks, tea in front of the crackling wood fire and hot buttered toast, Dalgliesh was relishing the thought of a well-earned break.
However, all hope of peace is soon shattered by murder. The mutilated body of a local crime writer, Maurice Seaton, floats ashore in a drifting dinghy to drag Adam Dalgliesh into a new and macabre investigation.
“The only drawback to planning and carrying out a perfect murder is that no one else can appreciate it.”
Unnatural Causes by P. D. James is the third book in her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries (originally published back in 1967). It’s one of the early P. D. James books that I’m just now getting around to reading. In this third outing, Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh escapes to what he hopes to be a “solitary, uncomplicated holiday” at his aunt’s cottage – far away from complicated London and his lover Deborah Riscoe. Alas, his wish was not to be… As satirized by Terry Pratchett on his Discworld Novel Snuff: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse.” Well, at least Adam Dalgliesh was able to have time to sit down for his first holiday dinner before the first corpse turned up😉
Unnatural Causes opens with the bizarre tableau of a dapper dressed corpse (with missing hands) adrift on a small boat off the Suffolk coast. The body turns out to be that of the local mystery novelist Maurice Seaton, neighbor to Dalgliesh’s own Aunt Jane. Being out of his jurisdiction, Adam Dalgliesh finds himself in the unaccustomed (and very frustrating) position of having to watch someone else’s investigation – especially when he does not agree with the conclusions of the local police (Detective Inspector Reckless).
Unfortunately, after that very interesting start, I’m afraid that I found the next chapters to be a very slow read – it took me forever (!) to read the rest of the novel as I kept on either getting sleepy or distracted. It was very, very slow going as we were introduced to the suspects (all of whom seemed to be pretty deplorable characters) and really, hardly anything happened, other than Dalgliesh getting more and more irritated (and he wasn’t the only one!). Things only got interesting again much later on in the book – when Dalgliesh became angry enough to start his own investigation in an ‘unofficial capacity’ and of course, when a second corpse turns up (there’s always a second one, right?).
P. D. James manages to get her groove back though, and finishes up with a pretty fantastic and exciting last quarter that ties up all the loose ends together. I like to guess the identity of the killer myself, but in this case, I wasn’t even close! Very clever finish by P. D. James! And of course, I am in awe with how she just manages to so poetically string words together. I mean, which crime fiction writer still writes like this?
The night pressed around her. She breathed darkness like a physical weight. It was as if the air had thickened with night, had become a heaviness through which she had to fight her way.
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