Thursday, October 1, 2009

Unnatural Causes

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Unnatural Causes (Faber & Faber, 1967).

A couple of months ago, I wrote a short review of Cover Her Face, the first novel by P.D. James, and suggested that readers curious about her detective fiction might do better to start with the fourth, Shroud for a Nightingale. Clearly, I didn't have my brain working that day, because I evidently had either never read or somehow completely forgotten about her third Adam Dalgliesh adventure, Unnatural Death, which is really special and deserves a look.

The story would probably have been a corker under any writer's direction: Superintendent Dalgliesh's aunt lives in a small Suffolk community of authors, playwrights and critics, and one of their number, a noted mystery writer, turns up dead in a dinghy with his hands severed. What threw me for a very satisfying loop, however, is the way that James completely subverted the rules of the genre and told a story considerably more "meta" than anybody else would have. It's very much a product of its time, with elements of the sort of thing that Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton might have done in their plays. The first page of the novel, where our victim is unveiled in a single-page chapter, turns out not to have been written by the book's narrator. The chapter that we read turns up later on in the novel as a page of evidence mailed by the person who dismembered the victim. That was so darn neat that it made my head spin.

Even without the "meta" plays at the structure of novels and tweaks at the genre's conventions, this really would be a fantastic book. The action moves from the community to an exclusive London club to a seedy Soho dive and back again to an isolated beach where another victim turns up, and an unbelievably bitter motive is found. Oddly, I was a little let down by the conclusion, in which, similar to Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body?, far too long and detailed a confession is provided post-mortem, but getting there is a real treat. Otherwise, from every raised critical eyebrow about Dalgliesh's parallel career as a poet to the violent bludgeoning of his body and heart that he suffers in the last thirty or so pages, every word in the novel feels honest and I really felt like the events within it mattered both for very real characters and for me as a reader. I truly am enjoying the fun of rediscovering P.D. James. I'd recommend new readers start with this one, and don't leave it too long.

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