Monday, March 2, 2015

PD James: Unnatural Causes, Aunt Who?

PD James
Unnatural Causes

This is the third in the series of mysteries featuring  the cases of Dalgliesh, James' poetry writing Scotland Yard detective.  This one is a bit different in that it really isn't Dalgliesh's case, for he's on vacation, visiting his Aunt Jane Dalgliesh who lives in a small village on the coast that has become sort of an undeclared writers' colony.  However, the officer in charge of the case is very ambivalent towards Dalgliesh.  He doesn't like Dalgliesh, and Dalgliesh returns the feeling, but he wants to draw upon Dalgliesh's experience and expertise.  This makes for a rocky professional relationship.

A corpse is discovered in a small dinghy floating off the coast.  His hands have been cut off, probably after his death, according to the autopsy.  He is soon identified as he had been one of the writers who lived in the small village.  How did he die?  Why were his hands removed after death?  Some sort of warning?  A false trail?  As usual, James provides much to keep us occupied.

This is probably my third, and perhaps even the fourth, reading of this novel.  Even though I knew whodunnit, I still find James' works entertaining as novels about people and their behavior.    And something new always shows up at each reading.  This time Dalgliesh's aunt stood out from the background.  I become aware of her this time, much more than in previous readings.  Just why, of course, is probably a case of over-reading on my part, but I find it interesting anyway.

Adam Dalgliesh and his Aunt Jane are very close, in spite of the difference in their ages, or perhaps because of this difference.  She is in her eighties now and a spinster.  She had been engaged as a young woman back in 1918, but her fiance had been killed six months before the Armistice in November.  Apparently no one has come along since then to engage her affections.  She was the daughter of a minister, and after her mother died, shortly after her fiance's death, she took over the role of housekeeper for her father.

After his death  in 1955, she moved to the coast of Suffolk and lived quietly there.  Her one hobby, ornithology, kept her occupied.  Her careful and meticulous observations provided her with material for several books and she found herself, eventually, considered to be "one of the most respected of  amateur ornithologists in England."  Her reputation in the small village increased when it was discovered that several distinguished individuals, including a famous writer who had been a recluse for many years, were seen in her company. 

Dalgliesh later in the novel remarks that Aunt Jane was not a sentimental woman, quite the contrary.  "To Jane Dalgliesh people were as they were.  It was as pointlessly presumptuous to try to change them as it was impertinent to pity them.  Never before had his aunt's uninvolvement struck him so forcibly; never before had it seemed so frightening."  Jane Dalgliesh seems to be one who see people clearly and objectively, with few romantic illusions about her fellow inhabitants of this small planet and views them coldly and dispassionately.  They are as they are.

Now, why does this suddenly stand out, waving frantically for my attention.  Well, PD James' death last November got me to begin rereading her works again and to also remember an interview I had seen many years ago.  In the interview she said that Jane Austen was her favorite writer and that if she were alive today, Austen would be writing mysteries.

Jane Austen, who,  in the past, had frequently been referred to as "Dear Aunt Jane,"  was also a spinster at her death.  She too had been the daughter of a minister and remained in the family household until her death at 41.  She had never married, but had several chances.  One, at an early age, according to a family tradition, had occurred while they were living on the coast.  According to her sister Cassandra, a young man had fallen in love with Jane.  He had made a favorable impression on Cassandra, and she thought that he would have been successful in his courtship.  However, he had to leave, but he also made it clear that he would return.  Shortly afterwards, however,  they learned of his death.

Jane Austen's novels, based on careful and meticulous observation of the people around her, while never making any top ten list, did attract readers, one of whom was the Prince Regent who apparently kept copies of her works at each of his residences.  Her novels fostered no illusions about people and clearly presented them as they were, warts and all.

I suppose this is a real stretch.  Both aunts are named Jane, both had a minister for a father, both remained spinsters, both when young apparently lost a possibly successful  suitor  through death, both gained some fame as a writer whose works featured close and meticulous observation of their subjects, and both apparently had a clear and unromantic view of those about them, perhaps approaching a cruel and detached vision.

And to push this even further--I can't help thinking of another aunt who also clearly, perceptively, and objectively views her neighbors and sees the evil buried deep within--Aunt Jane Marple.   Obviously, I have a bad case of Aunt Jane fever. 


  1. And have you read _Death at Pemberly_ by James? It is her lovely homage to Austen.

    BTW, your posting here reminds me that I have for too long not gotten around to rereading Dame James's novels. I had better get started. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  2. RTD,

    Yes, I have read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Below is the url for the review I did of the book back in 2012.

    By the way, she later became Baroness James of Holland Park.

  3. One more question, Fred: Do you have a favorite PDJ novel?

  4. RTD,

    Hard to answer.

    Cover Her Face: probably because it was the first one I read, and also, the first one chronologically.

    A Taste for Death: I see this as the most complex one. Aside from the nostalgia value of the first one, I would say this would edge out in front of the others.

  5. Jane, Jane, Jane.
    This post of yours reminds me of this:

  6. Di,

    I can see why it reminded you.


  7. I'm not a P.D. James reader from way back, just read a couple of the books (can't even remember which) years ago. Was never a big fan. Thought her overrated and her books padded with lots of stuff that could easily have been edited out and should have been. I could not read DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY all the way through - in plain language, it was awful. Having said that, I did watch the PBS episodes based on the Dalgliesh stories, also years ago and in general, enjoyed them. Probably because they were so well produced.

    I like this idea of Aunt Jane characters who view those around them with a deadly calm and sharp understanding. Nice pick-up, Fred. And of course we know that P.D. James really admired Jane Austen's work.

    Having said all that, I'll also admit that I've recently listened to two P.D. James books on audio from the library, THE PRIVATE PATIENT and THE LIGHTHOUSE which, I think, are her last two Dalgliesh books. Enjoyed them a little more than I thought I would. But I sill say: too much padding and too much soul-searching among even, minor characters. But I'm going to listen to THE MURDER ROOM, only because I vaguely remember watching it on TV at some point and well, just because. There's no rhyme or reason sometimes.

  8. Yvette,

    Forgive me, but I shall have to disagree with you about PD James. I really enjoy the way she fleshes out even the secondary characters in a way few other mystery writers do. Most mystery writers do a credible job with the detective, perhaps a friend/associate or two, and sometimes the villain.
    It takes a bit longer to read, but I'm in no hurry to get to the end. The trip is the best part of the journey.

    I also thought she did an excellent job of creating the society and the times that Darcy and Elizabeth occupied. Being two highly important people in the county, it would be out of character for them to go racing about the countryside looking for clues and interviewing suspects. In addition, Darcy was a county magistrate (I think that was his title) so he had to separate himself from the investigation and avoid charges of favoritism. James also intelligently did not try to copy Austen's style as I've seen some others do, and with disastrous results.

  9. Fred and Yvette, I have no fuel to add to the fire except to say this: I am at this moment (when I finish this comment) digging through the boxes of books in the backroom where I should find my copy of PDJ's homage to Austen. I will (re)read the novel and later add some tinder to the dialogue. Stay tuned at Beyond Eastrod for my (re)assessment of PDJ via Austen (or would that be Austen via PDJ?).

  10. R.T.,

    Fear not, no fire--just a difference of opinions, which happens now and then between Yvette and me.