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.