Thursday, July 08, 2021

the last book I read

A Mind To Murder by PD James.

The Steen Clinic is a reputable psychiatric institution in central London, a venue of choice for the well-heeled but troubled to come and either pour out their marital and sexual woes in the traditional couch-based environment, or, for the more severely afflicted, to undergo either the strapping on of the electrodes or being dosed up with LSD.

So while there's a certain amount of acid-induced shouting from time to time, not to mention the occasional sound of sizzling frontal lobes, it's a surprise to everyone at the clinic when a scream rends the air. The scream turns out to belong to Jennifer Priddy, a junior typist - she's absolutely fine, but the chief administrator, Enid Bolam, has been murdered by a combination of being clonked on the head with a large wooden carving and then having a chisel driven through her heart. The screaming is because it was Jennifer Priddy who discovered her body, sprawled across a pile of medical records in the basement archive.

Fortunately Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh is reasonably close at hand, as he's attending the launch of a slim volume of his poetry at his publisher's premises nearby. Yes, he's a cop, who seems to adhere reasonably closely to established police protocol, but is also a published poet, which makes him something of a maverick, policemen not being generally given to poetry. Also, dammit, he gets results. And surely a result here will not be too difficult to come by, as the clinic isn't the sort of place you can just wander into, do a bit of the old murdering and then wander out of again, and the murderer must surely be among the group of a dozen or so psychiatrists and administrative staff who are on the premises when Dalgliesh arrives. 

And so begins the round of interviews between Dalgliesh and the prime suspects, and, as always, some interesting details emerge that provide motives for a surprisingly large number of them. It becomes clear that Enid Bolam was a highly efficient administrator, and a person of rigid moral rectitude, but somewhat prickly and difficult to get along with. That in itself probably wasn't enough to motivate someone to kill her, but other factors emerge as well: did her probable successor as administrator Mrs. Bostock knock her off to accelerate her succession? Did her cousin Marion, a nurse at the centre, knock her off to accelerate her inheritance of her money? Did either Miss Saxon or Dr Baguley knock her off as revenge for her going to Dr Baguley's wife to reveal the details of their affair some months previously? Did general handyman Peter Nagle knock her off for some as-yet-unknown reason? The chisel came from his toolbox, after all, though it was accessible to anyone who knew where it was kept.

Dalgliesh's finely-honed detectorial instincts soon sniff out some more intrigue: Peter Nagle, in addition to possibly knocking off Miss Bolam, has also been, hem hem, "knocking off" Jennifer Priddy while using her as a life model for his fledgling painting career. Also, Miss Bolam had a couple of mysterious cryptic messages on her desk jotter, one of which appears to have been the precursor to an urgent phone call to the head of the centre's management committee requesting an urgent meeting, a meeting which never happened as the murderer got to her first.

Dalgliesh deduces that someone had been blackmailing one of the centre's previous patients, one who had been in for some treatment for some problems of an, erm, "sensitive" nature - shame if those were to somehow become public, right? Obviously it must have been someone who had access to the centre's confidential medical records, and therefore one of the same group as the murder suspects, and, moreover, and I'm sure you're ahead of me here, probably the same person. 

Dalgliesh realises that he needs to intercept the murderer before he has a chance to cover his tracks, and he and his stolid sidekick Detective Sergeant Martin rush over to the Steen Clinic just in time to prevent a second murder from happening and collar the perp, though not without a final twisty-turny shock revelation.

This was PD James' second novel, published in 1963, and so is a pretty early one from her long writing career (she died in 2014 at the age of 94 and was publishing novels well into the 2000s). It's a classic locked-room mystery and quite reminiscent of the Agatha Christie novels I read a lot of in my teens (my maternal grandmother had a massive collection), just with a bit of extra sexual frankness as befits the early 1960s. The hunt for the perpetrator follows the classic pattern of: well it must have been this guy - no wait it must have been someone else - no wait it actually was the first guy after all - HOLY LAST-MINUTE PLOT TWIST IT WAS SOMEONE ELSE. Dalgliesh's intuitive leap to realising it must have been blackmail-related and his mental reconstruction of the blackmailer's victim selection process enabling him to find the victim within about five minutes by consulting the patient card index is all a bit of a stretch, plausibility-wise.

This is the first PD James novel I've read, but I get the impression her later novels pushed at genre boundaries a bit more (this would include Children Of Men which is proper dystopian science fiction and was filmed in 2006). This is a pretty orthodox whodunit, though none the worse for that. It grabs your initial attention, holds onto it with a bit of twisty-turny misdirection and then delivers some exciting revelations at the end, all in just over 200 pages. As such it was like catnip for those looking for material for TV adaptations and was (fairly loosely, by the look of it) adapted in the 1990s as one of the series of Adam Dalgliesh mysteries broadcast on ITV and starring Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh. 

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