Unnatural Causes

“For me,” wrote P.D. James in her “fragment of autobiography,” Time To Be in Earnest, “one of the fascinations of detective fiction is the exploration of character under the revealing trauma of murder inquiry.”  Murder “is the unique crime, the only one for which we can never make reparation to the victim.”  As a writer who concentrates on character development, James is drawn to the mystery genre precisely because a death by unnatural causes (Unnatural Causes is the title of one of her earlier novels featuring the Scotland Yard detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh) “destroys privacy, both of the living and of the dead.”  Murder “forces us to confront who we are and what we are capable of being.”  Small wonder, then, that murder “has fascinated writers and readers since Cain murdered Abel.”  And for more than 46 years, since the publication of her debut novel, Cover Her Face, P.D. James has ably used the mystery genre to explore human nature through the characters in her books.

At 88 James has given us one of her strongest efforts, writing with depth and clarity, as well as with an elegance seldom seen in an era of postmodern scribbling.  She has also broken new ground, showing readers that advanced age does not necessarily mean decreased skills or intellectual curiosity.  Reading James’ later books, one is...

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