Leila! I killed Leila! I'm not the person I always believed myself to be. I'm a murderer!
Dagger of the Mind is a story about a telepath; we seem to read about telepaths a lot here at MPorcius Fiction Log--we even ended up reading about telepaths when the plan was to read grim crime fiction. But let's just run with it.
John Redpath is an Englishman, an epileptic who lives in an apartment building on a busy road above a row of shops. He works at the nearby Institute, where they are experimenting on him, studying the effect of drugs on his slight telepathic abilities. The story begins on a morning on which he feels quite odd, and when he looks out the spyhole in his apartment door he sees a hideous visage, the bloody face of a man who has apparently been skinned alive! (The cover of the Pan edition of the novel seems to be trying to illustrate this.) When he opens the door there is nobody there! Are the drugs driving him insane?
As the day proceeds, more reasons to believe Redpath is going bonkers crop up. He is having a casual relationship with a promiscuous scientist who works in a different department of the Institute, Leila Mostyn, and he begins having irrepressible feelings of jealousy and possessiveness about her which quickly escalate into a violent rage. Is Redpath's personality changing? He continues to have hallucinations, and abruptly decides to make major life changes, quitting his job and finding a new place to live. Could his horrifying visions and changes in character be a reaction to the experimental drugs, or is his psychic ability picking up thoughts from other people, as one of the researchers at the Institute suggests? The climax of the first third of the novel sees Redpath murder Mostyn just after deciding he was truly in love with her. After fleeing the scene of the crime, Redpath falls asleep in his new apartment in a disreputable house full of questionable characters who are extremely friendly to him; when he wakes up he finds himself in a similar house in the United States!
Because the text wasn't doing much to hold my interest, I was disappointed when Shaw decisively undermined the most exciting thing that happened in the beginning of the book--Redpath's murder of the female lead--by returning the scene to suburban England and revealing that Mostyn had not been killed; Redpath had just cut up her apartment in her absence. If Shaw had got me to like Redpath or Mostyn, or at least excited some curiosity about them, maybe this would have been a cause for relief, but instead I was disappointed that the most dramatic and compelling thing in the book had not actually happened.
Redpath wakes up back in Britain, and there is some detective stuff as he talks to the police and Institute staff and everybody tries to figure out what is going on. In the final third of the book, Redpath has a telepathic epiphany and suddenly realizes exactly what is up. Decades ago, an alien criminal or revolutionary fled to Earth. This renegade's species are big blobs with psychic powers that eat keratin, which is what your skin and hair are made of. (That is why in his visions--some of which are not visions at all but real life--our boy Redpath has been seeing people and animals denuded of their skin.) The alien fugitive was afraid to use his psychic powers very much because that might expose him to detection by the forces of the establishment pursuing him, so, from his hiding place in an English basement, he has been giving humans psychic powers and hypnotizing them into serving him. Redpath is one of the people the alien gave psi powers years ago, when as a kid he was in the alien's neighborhood, and this novel's bizarre events are related to the monster using its powers to summon Redpath to join his team of human slaves. You see, the overly friendly weirdos in the house he has moved to are that team, one a guy who can teleport, one a guy who can see the future, and so on; their telepath recently died, and they need Redpath to round out the roster.
This is bad enough, but Redpath realizes, via telepathic insight, that even worse developments are in store. The conservative forces vengefully pursuing the alien rebel have finally caught up to him, and in a day or so are going to bomb England into oblivion. Redpath has to slay the monster in the basement fast to prevent the destruction of his home country and an interruption of the world's supply of authentic Marmite. Redpath tries to get Mostyn to help him, but this book was written before the current feminist era and her half-hearted efforts to aid him come to nothing, though Shaw tries to add suspense to his book by having us follow her for many pages on her abortive trip to America before, in the face of some mundane obstacles, she abandons her assigned task of being the New World prong of Redpath's planned Molotov pincer movement. Luckily, one of the alien's slaves--the teleporter guy--resists the monster's control and he and Redpath together destroy the beast and the forces of justice in orbit above call off their attack. As the story ends Redpath decides that he will pretend all this never happened and it looks like Mostyn is going to settle down and marry him, confident that his crazy ideas about aliens and teleporting human slaves--which she never believed--were drug induced.
But Dagger of the Mind does not work as entertainment or literature; the cool SF stuff takes up very little of the word count, and Shaw fails to captivate or move the reader via style or characters. Leila Mostyn has no personality, doesn't really contribute to the plot (the alien makes Redpath hallucinate killing her in order to drive him away from the Institute and his apartment and into the arms of the team of slaves, but some other hallucination would have worked just as well) and Shaw fails to offer any plausible reason why Redpath is in love with her and why she might want to marry him. The rebel alien, the pursuing alien, and the human slave who can teleport and who resists the alien could all have been compelling characters with interesting personalities and motivations if Shaw had gone to the trouble of fleshing them out, but they get very little screen time, so they are just gears rotating in Shaw's mechanical plot. I didn't care who lived or died and I didn't care who had sex with who or who was going to marry who.
I have enjoyed Shaw's work in the past, but this one didn't hold my interest, and often when I would sat down to read it I would find myself instead rereading randomly selected installments of Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura. I'm afraid I have to give Dagger of the Mind a marginal thumbs down. You hate to see it.
Some interesting (maybe?) notes. Shaw fills Dagger of the Mind with cultural references both high-falutin', like those to Shakespeare and Van Gogh, and popular, including nods to the TV show The Tomorrow People and the 1945 film Scared Stiff. Redpath likes old movies, apparently, and in his italicized thoughts refers to a dozen or more actors, many of whom I didn't recognize.
A scan of the Pan edition of Dagger of the Mind is available at the internet archive, and a brief look indicates that at least one change (beyond the typical spelling and punctuation changes) was made to the text in the production of the American edition I own. What appears as "World War II" in my 1982 Ace printing is "Second World War" in the 1981 Pan. Why the publisher felt the need to change this easily understood phrase, but left unmolested "saloon car" (we Yanks say "sedan") and "kitchen tissue" (US: "paper towels") is a mystery.