Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review: ‘A Mind to Murder’ by P.D. James

I recently picked up the novel A Mind to Murder by P. D. James, and I’ll tell you about it now.

James Mind to Murder
Not the cover I have, which has a creepy looking dude. I don’t know who he’s supposed to be.

A Mind to Murder is set in a British outpatient psychiatric hospital in the early 1960s.  On a Friday evening, administration officer Miss Enid Bolam is murdered in the basement records room, sprawled atop a bunch of strewn records, a chisel slammed into her heart and a crude fetish doll, carved by a schizophrenic patient, is cradled in her arms, in “a parody of motherhood”.  The doctors, administrative people, and other workers at the facility are the only ones who could have done it and are all gathered to await the arrival of Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, a detective with the Criminal Investigation Department.  He’s called away from a party that his publisher is giving him for the third printing of his first book of verse (which is the most unbelievable part of the whole book, to be honest).  All of the people gathered seem to have a motive, if only a weak one in some cases, and all seem to have opportunity, but Dalgliesh follows the trail and believes that a blackmail scheme played a role in her death.  Can Dalgliesh stop the murderer before they strike again?  Who went from disliking Miss Bolam to hating her enough to kill?

P. D. James shifts between perspectives of different characters.  We start in by looking in with Dr. Paul Steiner, a consulting psychiatrist at the Steen Clinic, and it’s through his perspective that we find the murdered woman.  We shift to Dalgliesh before long, and throughout the novel we get the various points of view of all the characters, which include psychiatrists with secret love lives, a nurse that happens to be the cousin of the murdered woman, various gossipy domestic workers, and a nun who helps out as a nurse.  Smarter people than I have surely said this, and I’ll discuss it in the future when I talk about Agatha Christie again, but I think perhaps that the delight of a murder story, besides the mechanics of the plot and how the murder was committed, is the peeking in on the domestic lives of strangers, and seeing both how they live and how the way they live is disrupted by the murder.  P. D. James alludes to this by having Dalgliesh muse on the way certain people’s lives are touched by a murder and how he encounters them briefly in an investigation but never again, other than as a half-remembered face on the street.  I don’t know if this domestic flavor is a British thing (in which case it would be ‘flavour’) or if it’s because James and Christie are female writers, or if it’s a convention of the genre that just isn’t always emphasized, but it’s what makes me continue reading.

P. D. James also gives us interesting looks into how a psychiatric hospital like this worked at the time.  At this point, British health care was nationalized, so the National Health Service ran things, and we see glimpses of bureaucracy at play in the hierarchy of the running of the clinic.  We also see how the differing viewpoints on psychiatry were shaping up, as the “talk therapy” proponents and others were opposing factions in the battle for how the Steen Clinic was to be run.  There is also discussion of the use of LSD in the treatment of certain patients.

We also see an interesting look at views of unwed sexual relations, as a typist and the porter (janitor/handyman, it seems) have an affair going on.  James seems to present this relationship in an unbiased, non-hysteric manner — people have sex, seems to be all she’s saying — there’s no moralizing about the affair.

Overall, James gives us with A Mind to Murder a satisfying locked room mystery with pleasing, diverging side roads on the way to the conclusion of the story.  Well worth your time.  And if you click the link, you can get a copy for yourself AND help us out at the Atomic Junk Shop!

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