A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

P.D. James is a mixed bag for me. I love her intelligent literary style of writing and her cool, cerebral, yet sensitive detective, Superintendent Adam Dalgleish. Her plots are intricate, her characters complex, and her depiction of surroundings are extremely detailed. Her books are definitely not cozy mysteries.
What I personally find difficult at times is the disturbing nature of some of her material. There was one book I ditched after a couple of chapters because of this, but I like her writing enough that I’m willing to take her book by book.
She tends to have a rather jaundiced view of just about everybody in her books, except for Dalgleish and his side step, Martin, as she explores the human heart and its motives.
There is no one without sin. Murder is murder and the person who commits this particular sin gets to feel the full force of justice regardless of motive or extenuating circumstances. The victim may have been the nastiest person on the face of the earth but nevertheless his life was sacred.
Apart from Sulari Gentill, P.D. James is the only modern crime writer I read. She writes up to her readers and doesn’t inflict offensive language upon them.

She saw the detective story as ‘a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.’


A Mind to Murder is set in a psychiatric clinic where psychiatrists struggle to manage their own personal relationships while counselling their clients about theirs. The murder victim was unpopular with everyone in the clinic and hence everyone there is a suspect. There are some rare moments of humour in this story, as well as some sympathetic insights into the background of her aloof detective; i.e. Dalgleish is a published poet and his wife died in childbirth some years previously.

\’Mr Burge enlarged on the immaturity, coolness and insensitivity of his wives in a querulous falsetto. Dr Steiner’s clinical judgement, not uninfluenced by the late effects of a large lunch and the unwise choice of a cream donut with his afternoon tea, told him that the time was not yet ripe to point out that the one defect shared by the three mesdames Burge had been a singular lack of judgement in their choice of husband.\’

\’Dr Steiner doodled on his notepad, regarded his doodle with interest and concern, looked at it again with the pad held upside down and became for a moment more preoccupied with his own subconscious than with that of his patient.\’

\’There had…been no demur over providing Baguley with a new and highly expensive contraption for shocking his patients out of the few wits they still possessed.\’

She has much to say about death and the ‘personal residue of a finished life.’

\’During his career (Dalgliesh) had examined with interest and with pity so many petty leavings. The soiled underclothes pushes hurriedly into drawers, personal letters which prudence would have destroyed, half-eaten meals, unpaid bills, old photographs, pictures and books which the dead would not have chosen to represent their taste to a curious or vulgar world, family secrets, stale make-up in greasy jars, the muddle fill-disciplined or unhappy lives. It was no longer the fashion to dread an unshriven end but most people, if they thought at all, hoped for time to clear away their debris.\’

P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four. This article was written four years before she died:

\’\”I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos.\” In fact, as with the later work of her hero Dorothy L Sayers, a great deal of the fascination of James\’s detective fiction lies in the way chaos flourishes in the midst of the novels\’ rigid structure – the internal psychological mess that brings about murder. \”I think there\’s been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age,\” she suggests. \”What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It\’s a fascinating way of dealing with people.\”\’

16 thoughts on “A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

  1. I have not read James but her work sounds so interesting. I so find some books disturbing myself so I might get a little squeamish with some of her books. I like the passages that you quoted.

    Like

  2. I used to love P.D. James, back when I only read maybe 10 books a year and most of them mysteries or crime fiction. I recently re-read Devices and Desires and really enjoyed it (it helped that I had absolutely NO MEMORY) of who done it or why – LOL). The complexity that you write about is very much what I like about her books. Even though they are crime fiction, there is something luxurious about sitting down to get lost in one. I will have to check out Sulari Gentill. I used to read, as a teenager, a detective series by Arthur Upfield that took place in Australia. And I did read the first book from Jane Harper, The Dry. But otherwise, not a lot of fiction, crime or otherwise, set in Australia.

    Like

  3. Ruthiella, a friend of mine read his books in her teens – the ‘Bony’ series. I agree with your luxurious comment! I love to read something like this – good literature that takes you away for a while.

    Like

  4. I have always been leery about reading contemporary writers. I read Girl on a Train, which was unusual for me, because the premise was intriguing. Then the writing turned out to be mediocre and I did not like the dark worldview.James sounds a little bit like that too, but I respect your opinion, and since my local library has quite a few of her books, I will give her a try.

    Like

  5. Hi Silvia, I've read that some of her later books are very good. Her only recent books that I've read are The Private Patient & Children of Men, which was excellent – dystopian – which you'd probably really enjoy. Also Death at Pemberley but I didn't think her writing was as good as usual in that one.

    Like

  6. Hi Sharon, I hope you find something you like at your library. I mentioned above to Silvia that Children of Men was excellent. Not a detective book but it's a fantastic, sobering read.

    Like

  7. I got three of her short stories in a Kindle loan from the library.I take note of the recommendations you gave me.My friend Sarah (AO mom) was disappointed by Death Comes…, I will let you know my thoughts. I felt for some mystery and I always like to try a new author.

    Like

  8. I began reading P.D. James many years ago, when I was just beginning to read crime/detective/mystery fiction. She was such a skillful writer and so keen a psychological observer that I became totally hooked; having Adam Dalgliesh as her main character certainly helped in this regard! For some reason, I stopped reading James' novels at roughly her mid-career point; I think I found some of her latter books not so appealing as her earlier work. I have a copy of her non-fiction work on detective fiction, which I've heard is very interesting (James took her craft seriously and had spent a great deal of time looking at her predecessors' works). Of course, I haven't read it! (I have lots of unread books).I agree that some of James' material can be pretty disturbing but for me it's balanced by her sense of justice — as you pointed out, in James' view the life of even the most corrupt or despicable person is sacred and taking it offends the orderly structure of the universe. And, as I recall (it's been a long time since I've read her work), Dalgliesh ALWAYS got his man (or woman), thereby restoring the moral order by bringing the murderer to justice. So — James is optimistic in a way.BTW loved your inclusion of James' words — it really gave a lot of context to the novel.

    Like

  9. I came to say that I got \”A Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories\”, and I got hooked. Another blogger friend recommended me The Children of Men, and I got it through the library. I love dystopian books, and I'm also reading Vonnegut's \”The Sirens of Titan\”. Unexpectedly, I've just picked up mysteries and dystopian titles for this lazy summer.

    Like

  10. Hi Janakay, thanks for taking the time to comment. One of the reasons I'm drawn back to her books is that theme of justice that has run through every book I've read by her, so I agree, as you pointed out, that she is ultimately optimistic. I've read about some of her own background – forensic science, admin of psychiatric wards, her husband's mental illness after WWII, her mother's death from mental illness – she was certainly writing from a place of personal experience.

    Like

  11. Pingback: The Classics Club: A New List | journey & destination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s