PD James’ leisurely murder mystery

The Private Patient by PD James

This is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery where the Scotland Yard detective enters late into the story. And even then Commander Dalgliesh hardly occupies centrestage. The focus keeps shifting from one character to another. His subordinates, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, duly get their turn in the spotlight as do several others in this country house mystery. There is an eminent cosmetic surgeon, a successful woman journalist who is murdered in his private hospital after surgery, and others in the country estate where he operates on wealthy patients.

Even after Dalgliesh takes up the case, there is another murder. His investigation turns up a convicted murderer in the house halfway into the story, but this being a murder mystery, the killer here has to be somebody else.

PD James like Agatha Christie likes to depict her characters at length. And the characters here are more interesting than the mystery itself. The Private Patient is not a taut, suspenseful thriller. It is as much a novel of manners, depicting the mores and lifestyle of upper and upper middle class people, though it does look at people lower down the social scale and their problems, for let no one say PD James is not socially aware. That slows down the narrative, however. It’s not chatty and breezy like Agatha Christie. PD James is more meditative, commenting on life and society. She has written more riveting mysteries in the past.

PD James unfortunately writes in a manner that makes one suspect here is a superior woman. The leading characters tend to have stiff upper lips, the cuisine is never fish and chips, any depiction of love is more likely to be spiritual than physical, the music classical. It’s a bit claustrophobic.

And there’s this focus on successful people. Dalgliesh is a top detective and a poet though no poetry appears in this novel. The surgeon and the murdered woman journalist are rich and successful. When Dalgliesh’s prospective father-in-law is briefly introduced in this novel, he is described as a retired university professor who has “done very well”.

It may be because of the life she– PD James – has known. A former civil servant who served as a governor of the BBC and was made a life peer, she has won many prizes and honours. Is that why she writes about successful people, because she knows them intimately, or is it because she is an overachiever by nature? Her brief biography in The Private Patient mentions the girls’ school she attended and says she has received honorary degrees from seven British universities. And the OBE. What else remains to be accomplished?

Now 88 years old, PD James can still write a bestseller. Her fans won’t rest until they have finished reading The Private Patient, and it is a good read. The women in this story are portrayed sensitively, in depth if not always at length. It is they who make it memorable though it is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery. The book ends happily on a romantic note: the right woman gets the right man. It may have been written with women readers in mind.


PD James and The Lighthouse

I just finished reading PD James’ latest mystery, The Lighthouse, which came out last year. And I must admit I am a little disappointed.

Not that I would have missed it for anything in the world.

PD James is too good a writer to ever really let down her readers. The writing is as assured as ever, picturesque, elegant, smooth, the sentences beautifully constructed, unblemished by split infinitives like the one I used in the previous sentence. This is British writing almost at its very best, in the tradition of Graham Greene, quiet, understated, and yet vivid and seamless. Once I picked up this book, it was impossible to put down.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the Scotland Yard detective who has come a long way since he appeared in James’ first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962, is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of a famous novelist on a little island off the coast of Cornwall.

There are only a handful of people on the island, which is privately owned and does not admit strangers. So the murderer cannot be an outsider. That makes it like an Agatha Christie mystery. And, like Christie, James profiles each of the suspects, their background and motivations, in considerable detail.

But while the plot seems like vintage Christie, there are differences. The story is set in Britain today. An outbreak of Sars, brought in by a visitor from Hong Kong, cuts off the island after the novelist’s death, hampering investigations. Pre-marital sex and same-sex relationships are accepted, unlike in Christie’s time. A peripheral character, who makes a fleeting appearance, is a lesbian living with her partner. James does not frown upon such relationships. She has kept up with the world which must have changed considerably since she was born 85 years ago.

It is remarkable how modern and up-to-date she is, given the fact that she will be celebrating her 86th birthday on Aug 3 this year.

But she has dated too, which is inevitable when you are that old. There is a puritanical streak behind that modern sensibility. She may accept  pre-marital and same-sex relationships but so restrained in her descriptions of the emotion of love and the act of sex that she would have been better off leaving them out of her novel. But she can’t. Dalgliesh has to have a romantic interest to make him more human. Yet the way James describes Dalgliesh’s feelings for the woman he wants to marry and her feelings for him, it is too sketchy and idealised.

And the weakest scene is the denouement, where the murderer is caught. As Dalgliesh is laid up with Sars, the arrest has to be made by his two assistants, Kate and Benton-Smith. The scene is obviously made for television. Kate has to strip to her bras and panties and greased up with Vaseline by Benton-Smith to wriggle through a narrow opening into the lighthouse where the murderer is holed up, threatening to throw a teenage girl from the top floor if the detectives try to arrest him. Kate has to get in through the only opening to unlock the lighthouse door and let in Benton-Smith who can’t get in otherwise. But the scene jars with the rest of the novel.

The Lighthouse is a serious earnest novel with plenty to say about crime, life, society, and the “ruthlessness” it takes for people to succeed in life. James has little sympathy for losers and underachievers. That comes out clearly in the end. I can’t say more, for that will give the plot away. But it makes James less attractive as a writer and a person.

One more complaint: She repeatedly reminds the reader that Dalgliesh is a poet as well as a novelist. But she never treats us to a sampling of his work.

James is comfortable describing a world where people listen to classical music, go to Oxford or Cambridge, quote Shakespeare in everyday life and have three-course dinners. That is natural for a woman who is an old-school Conservative and a life peer.

I preferred Death In Holy Orders, the previous Adam Dalgliesh mystery I read, which was published in 2001. I have yet to read The Murder Room, which came out in 2003.