While her first novel, ‘Cover her Face’ showed the various traits of a first novel (for example, a lack of use of the full pallet of description that she undoubtedly possessed) the second novel, first published in 1963, is another story. James likes what I would call set pieces, buy which I mean murders committed in small, and often confined settings– a small literary community with a hospital (‘the Black Tower’), a small school, a small business firm, a small seaside village or in this case a small psychiatric hospital in London. What this does of course is narrow down the logical number of suspects for a murder, unless of course the killing was done by a total outsider.
James likes the small set piece, I suppose, in part because of the squirm factor. That is, if you have a small confined group of people, and none have run away or disappeared, then we are dealing with the uncomfortable situation where all of a sudden a group of reasonable peaceful and somewhat normal people are working or living with a murderer whom they know quite well. Just as most car accidents happen within a few miles of home, so most murders are in fact ‘inside jobs’, and ‘A Mind to Murder’ tells such a tale.
Like her first novel, ‘A Mind to Murder’ is short and to the point (only 224 pages) and can be read in one or two settings. If you ask the question why would a Christian person want to read such stories, which often include disturbing elements, there are several good reasons: 1) for a teacher and preacher and writer like me, it helps with learning more about and understanding better fallen human nature. I call it the ‘there but for the grace of God’ factor; 2) it involves studying human curiosity, and the human ability to puzzle out a mystery. I call that the Sherlock factor. James gives you plenty to work with on both accounts. And her Inspector, Adam Dalgleish is an interesting study in himself. A child of the parsonage and a poet, turned to solving crime. This is not your everyday detective. He is thoughtful, brooding, steady, and also lonely after losing both his wife and child in a horrible accident. But in these early novels we do not learn much about Dalgleish the private citizen.
The plot in sum is that an administrative head of a psychiatric clinic is found dead in the basement of the clinic with a chisel through her chest and a totem from the art therapy lab on his chest. The woman, a Miss Bolam, seems harmless enough, a church-going gal who has always been single and is a leader of the British equivalent of the Girl Scouts. In short, she seems a person who would never harm a fly, and it’s hard to imagine how she could generate enough hate in another person to produce a grisly murder. And yet it happens time and again. Dalgleish must get to the bottom of this, and quickly before the killer acts again or the trail goes cold. But this entails a long series of interviews of both patients and doctors and staff in the clinic, and an equally difficult putting together of small pieces of a puzzle that leads to a conclusion. And of course James is careful not to lay her cards on the table all at once, or prematurely. Only slowly, does the light dawn in this murder mystery.
This novel is once again a good place to start if you have not read any James before. It can be consumed in a sitting or two. But like chewing carefully a good steak, a good novel like this requires long rumination and your undivided attention, lest you miss the clues. In the end it will tell you whether you have ‘a mind to solve a murder’.