Unnatural Causes

An Adam Dalgliesh mystery by P.D. James.

Unnatural CausesI mentioned in a previous post that I’d taken two novels with me to the hospital for something to do while recovering from surgery. In that same post, I also mentioned that drugs kept me unable to read for the entire time I was there. I caught up yesterday by reading one of the two books I’d lugged down to Phoenix and back: Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.

I’m a big reader of mysteries, but for some reason I’ve always shied away from P.D. James. I think I must have had a bad P.D. James experience in my past. You know what I mean. You get a book from the library and have every intention of reading it, but when you open the book and begin to read, the book fails to grasp your attention. You put it aside, planning to pick it up later to read it, and wind up just returning it to the library — late, of course — with a new idea in the back of your mind: you don’t really care for that author’s work.

I don’t remember this happening to me with a P.D. James book, but it must have. There’s no other explanation for why I have avoided her work for so long.

The Great P.D. James Avoidance, however, ended last week when I picked up one of her books at Wickenburg’s local library. And yesterday’s reading of Unnatural Causes dissolved any preconceived notions I had about her work.

The book, which was originally published in 1967, concerns the discovery of a dinghy carrying the body of a dead man whose hands have been cut off. The dinghy washes ashore at the seaside town where it originated, which is also the same place the victim lived: Monksmere. The town has an unusually high percentage of full- and part-time residents who are either writers or crititcs. The dead man was a writer.

The book is nearly 40 years old now and it shows its age. Not in a bad way, mind you. More like a “look back” way. A part of the plot concerns the typing (on a typewriter) of the dead man’s manuscripts with and without carbon paper. If you’re old enough to remember typewriters, you’re likely to remember carbon paper, too. Not only did it give you the ability to make a copy of a document as you typed it, but it preserved that document on its shiny blue or black side — until you reused it so many times that you couldn’t read the carbon. Remember the days? Glad they’re gone? Me, too!

I won’t go into any more detail about the story line or suspects because I don’t want to spoil the book for any future reader who likes a good British “cosy” mystery. That’s what this is, through and through. P.D. James and Agatha Christie were cut from similar molds, although I think James has better use of the English language and much better descriptive skills. Her desciptions of the coastal town were so clear that they brought me there — from central Arizona! — and I was able to hear the waves and feel the dampness of the sea air. There’s something to be said for an author who can do that.

My final word? If you like mysteries and haven’t read any P.D. James, Unnatural Causes is a good place to start.

What do you think?