One of the basic assumptions underlying any detective novel is a sense of social order. The novelist assumes that the reader agrees that killing people is wrong; it does not matter if the victims are exemplary citizens or odious individuals, it is the mere act of snuffing out anothers life that is against the social order. In P. D. James A Mind To Murder, Nurse Marion Bolams murder of her stuffy and self-righteous cousin Enid illustrates a situation where the nurse and her invalid mother had suffered from her cousins stinginess; James gives us a clear look at the murderers fear that if Enid had been given time to change her will as she had threatened to do, the Marion and her mother would never get the money to which they considered themselves entitled. However, James urges us to understand, this does not matter. Murder, for whatever reason it is committed, is still murder, and it is always wrong.
However, the murder of Enid Bolam is not the only violation of the social order which James describes in this book. Chief amongst his other villains is Peter Nagle, the young and attractive porter at the Steen Clinic. Peter is also a gifted painter, and is only working at the clinic to pay his living expenses while he waits for a prestigious arts grant to come his way. However, Peter is infected with the arrogance of those who feel that their talent entitles them to liberties unavailable to the rest of society. He lives in a magnificent studio apartment, and owns only the very best painting equipment.
He obviously cannot afford this on a clinic-porters salary, so he figures out a way to, with Marion Bolams help, blackmail former patients into paying him fifteen pounds each per month in return for his silence about their embarrassing diagnoses. The possibility that maybe he should make do with a less impressive dwelling and less extravagant equipment never seems to occur to Peter because, after all, he is Peter Nagle. He has been told over and over again that he is brilliant, talented, headed for certain fame.
Thus he reacts with the arrogance one would expect of such an august personage. This constitutes a disruption of the social order because Peter will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and to go where he wants to go. He takes advantage of the young Jennifer Priddy, a clerical employee at the clinic and his nude model. She is deeply in love with him, and he has no real regard for her at all. She is eager to back up his false statements — not because she knows they are false, but because she wants to clear him of any suspicion.
As the novel goes on, however, Peter becomes more interested in Marion Bolam. Again, just as he was only interested in Jennifer Priddy for the beautiful body he could depict in his paintings, he is only interested in Marion for the money which, after her cousin Enids death, she was certain to inherit. Having access to Marions money in addition to the Bollinger grant will enable him to live for the rest of his life in the style to which he feels himself entitled. Therefore he is more than willing to help Marion create the perfect murder.
By the time he discovers Marion in the clinic basement, Marion has already hit Enid over the head with a wooden statue to stun her, and plunged Peters chisel into her heart. It was Peter who arranged the wooden statue on Enids body, half whimsically and possibly also to make it look like a ritualistic killing. But if blackmail and accessory to murder is not enough, Peter is willing to go even further. He has been working together with Marion Bolam in the blackmail scheme, and when he realizes how close she is to a huge fortune, the lovesick Jennifer Priddy is simply an albatross around his neck.
If he could get rid of Jennifer once and for all, he would simultaneously rid himself of someone who a) knew too much, 2) was too desperate to spend her life in his arms, and 3) stood between himself and his new love, an heiress. Consequently he determines to kill Jennifer and make it appear a suicide. He is actually doing a very good job at it, too — except he is surprised by Detective Dalgliesh at the crucial moment, just as he himself surprised Marion Bolam. There is one significant difference, however. Adam Dalgliesh is determined to uphold the same social order that Marion Bolam and Peter Nagle were determined to undermine.
Consequently Jennifer Priddys life is saved in the nick of time, and the solution to all the crimes is unraveled. Although these are the most flagrant violations of social order in this novel, there are a number of others as well. A third violation is represented by the situation of Dr. James Baguley. He is married to a woman who has some form of neurosis. Mrs. Baguley is very dependent on him and very recriminatory about his leaving her alone or even being late arriving home from work.
One could argue that some of this is the result of Dr. Baguleys affair with a co-worker, Fredrica Saxon. On the other hand, there is every evidence that Mrs. Baguleys neurotic behavior preceded the affair, not resulted from it (at least this is the impression we get from Miss Saxon herself). Nonetheless, the author seems to argue, while living with a neurotic and clingy wife is certainly a strain, it does not license one to have an affair. To do so is to subvert the social order again, and it inevitably results in tragedy. The tragedy in this case amounted to the public outing of Miss Saxons and Dr. Baguleys affair, and the situation is only completely rectified when Miss Saxon turns to religion, the Baguleys renew their wedding vows (thus affirming their basic love and fidelity) and Miss Saxon leaves the Steen Clinic to work at a church-sponsored clinic for mentally-retarded children in a distant northern city.
The final three pages of the novel are, in many ways, the most important part of the book in terms of their reaffirmation of the basic importance of the social order. In this final section, the garrulous Mrs. Shorthouse, a domestic assistant at the Clinic, comes back some time after the case is closed to update Inspector Dalgliesh on what has happened to everyone involved. Throughout the novel, one has been struck powerfully by how fundamentally wrong is the entire situation at the Steen Clinic. This motif is set in the very first pages of the novel by the long and involved ruminations of Dr. Steiner (a character who actually has a relatively small part in the proceedings), expostulating on how the clinic is cramped, the doctors are under-appreciated, and there is a general air of resentment amongst all the employees, whether professional or not.
Clearly there is a significant problem with burnout amongst these people, and we soon learn that their personal lives are even less fulfilling and wholesome than the situation at work. All this points, James implies, to a widespread violation of the social order which produces personal unhappiness as well. However, in the final scene involving the meeting between Mrs. Shorthouse and Inspector Dalgliesh, we find that many of those situations, which came to a head during the course of the novel, have been rectified. Mrs. Shorthouse tells the Inspector that not only have the Baguleys remarried and Miss Saxon gone to work at a convent, as she puts it (James, 254), but Miss Priddy has moved out of her parents home and gotten her own apartment, together with a new job at a chest clinic.
Nagle and Marion Bolem are in prison, and Marions invalid mother, who wasnt really at fault in any of this, has gone to live in a nursing home where she will be well-cared for, since her daughter obviously wont be there to do it. This isnt a perfect solution, but it isnt a perfect world, and it would be false to P. D. James premises to assume that everything can be returned to a state of Eden. However, James seems to feel that we as social beings have an obligation to keep everything as close to an ideal social paradigm as possible. Only in this way will everyone be in a position to achieve maximum happiness. The narcissism of Peter Nagle serves as a sober warning that we are not put on earth to ride roughshod over everyone else in our selfish search for happiness, but that happiness is a social construct in which everyone should reap equal benefit and for which everyone should assume equal responsibility.