Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Unnatural Causes

Please don't think Miss Lemon unkind if this recommendation of P. D. James's Unnatural Causes (1967) sounds halfhearted.

In fact, there are many things Miss Lemon likes about this novel, set in the very isolated, very literary village of Monksmere, precariously perched on the edge of the North Sea. At the same time, Miss Lemon regrets to say that she found a few things about Unnatural Causes less genial.

So let's get the unpleasantries out of the way first, shall we? For starters, Miss Lemon does not much care for Adam Dalgliesh. Now before her loyal readers stoke the heretical fires, do let Miss Lemon explain.

At least in this particular work, Superintendent Dalgliesh is condescending and smug, and, worse, reluctant to get involved in a riveting case because he's on holiday in Monksmere, visiting his spinster Aunt Jane. Not a convincing excuse. Because in the meantime, the body of a local mystery novelist drifts to shore in a dinghy, the writer's hands severed neatly at the wrists. Not long after, a likely suspect finds that a hefty dose of arsenic is decidedly not his cup of tea (or whiskey).

But Dalgliesh remains largely unmoved. Sometimes simpering (he's ostensibly on holiday to have a good think about whether marrying Deborah Briscoe would turn out to be too much of a bore); sometimes seething (Dalgliesh takes great offence to the insinuation by Inspector Reckless that his saintly aunt might somehow be implicated in the crime), Dalgliesh seems content to tell himself that this is Reckless's show and he's perfectly capable of managing it alone.

Even so, Dalgliesh can scarcely mask his disdain. Even among the writerly cabal that seems to have headquartered itself at Monksmere, Dalgliesh, because he is a poet, places himself on the artistic high ground. There's Maurice Seton, the mystery writer; Celia Calthorp, a garish woman who pens romance; Oliver Latham, the womanizing theatre critic; and J. D. Sinclair, literary novelist and village recluse. And although they seem to outwardly despise each other, it's nothing odd to find them converging en masse on poor old Aunt Jane, or lunching and picnicking, or spending the evenings in one another's company. Again, not very convincing.

Perhaps Miss Lemon still feels the sting of Ms. James referring to Agatha Christie as a 'literary conjurer,' with hardly any influence on the detective novel as we know it today in her latest book, Talking About Detective Fiction. She also calls Mrs. Christie's characters 'pasteboard,' which is all well and good so long as one cannot be accused of employing them in one's own fiction. To wit, Aunt Jane.

But to be fair, there were many things that drew Miss Lemon into Unnatural Causes. The village setting, along the craggy Suffolk coast, was deftly drawn. There's also an unforgettable scene in London at the fictional Cadaver Club, set up in Tavistock Square. This is one of Miss Lemon's favourite parts of London, and if only there were such a club that privately catered to mystery writers and criminologists and which exhibited relics of unforgettable crimes....

Even so it reminds one that even with its flaws, Unnatural Causes is still worth reading. One of the novel's most clever aspects is the metafiction on which it rests. The opening chapter is a lovingly drawn description of a handless body adrift at sea -- the very description found in the manuscript that Maurice Seton posts to his secretary from the Cadaver Club.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if I read this one or not. I think I may have seen the PBS version without reading it.

    My verdict on P.D. James is that she is a master at creating setting and plot. Her characters are singularly unlikeable, including her detective. I find his relation to life as it is lived somewhat alienated. His dithering in the most recent novel about his fiancee is offputting. All that said, though, she remains one of the best mystery writers in the biz, and she jumps to the top of my TBR pile every time. And believe me, that is no small accomplishment.