Book Review: "The Private Patient" by P.D. James

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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind,
who reviews frequently for Book World
Wednesday, December 31, 2008


An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery

By P.D. James

Knopf. 368 pp. $25.95

P.D. James's latest murder mystery, the 14th to feature Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh of London's Metropolitan Police Service, is not the most formidable example of this iconic author's work, but it's still pretty darn good. Yes, the plot's a little poky in the middle, and yes, it's hard for a contemporary audience to believe that the principal murder victim here, a female muckraking journalist from a modest background, is worth nearly 2 million pounds. Even so, for first-time readers and longstanding admirers alike, "The Private Patient" offers a clear view of the virtues that have distinguished James's crime fiction since her first novel, "Cover Her Face," was published in 1962.

Among those virtues are sumptuously imagined settings, both urban and rural; an unflagging effort to animate every character, no matter how minor, with distinctiveness and humanity; and an eagerness to illustrate the monumental changes in English national identity and manners over the course of the 88-year-old author's eventful life.

"I could always imagine myself writing a novel which wasn't a detective story," James writes in her engrossing 1999 autobiography, "Time to Be in Earnest," "but I can't imagine myself writing a book which doesn't include death." In many ways, although its plot hovers nervously around a couple of malicious homicides, "The Private Patient" is as concerned with timely death as it is with sudden murder: In addition to fulfilling all the conventions of a traditional mystery, it's also an elegy for lives and for ways of life that are mutating or reaching their natural ends.

Among the metamorphoses taking place here is that of a country estate called Cheverell Manor, a grand Tudor pile situated a few hours out of London in moody, beautiful Dorset. (This was the landscape for Thomas Hardy's troubled novels, and to enhance the atmosphere, James adds a creepy prehistoric stone circle just outside the Manor, the site of a notorious witch-burning in the 17th century.) Cheverell Manor is "a house built for certainties," writes James, "for birth, death and rites of passage, by men who knew what they believed and what they were doing." Yet those certainties are gone now, the house having been converted into a fancy private clinic for plastic-surgery patients, and when Dalgliesh first sets eyes on the place, "for a moment in the stillness it seemed to quiver and become as insubstantial as a vision."

Dalgliesh himself is undergoing several personal upheavals. He'll soon be marrying his longtime love, Cambridge professor Emma Lavenham, and he's thinking seriously about retiring from police work after a lengthy, much-decorated career. An intensely reserved, impassioned figure (he's probably the only fictional detective who's also a respected poet), Dalgliesh here reveals some candidly valedictory impulses. When he views the strangled corpse of Rhoda Gradwyn, the journalist who meets her death at Cheverell Manor after undergoing surgery to remove a facial scar, Dalgliesh reflects: "This was not the most horrific corpse he had seen in his years as a detective, but now it seemed to hold a career's accumulation of pity, anger and impotence. He thought, Perhaps I've had enough of murder."

But murder has surely not had enough of him, or of his two engaging younger colleagues, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, who's more than half in love with her boss, and Detective Sgt. Francis Benton-Smith, the charming and ambitious Anglo-Indian who has worked with Miskin on a few previous cases. With their usual scrupulousness, following classic Agatha Christie-like "closed-room" protocol, the trio investigates every Manor employee who might have had a reason to kill Gradwyn. Was it her esteemed surgeon? Could it be the doctor's surgical assistant or the assistant's sister, both of whom are about to inherit a substantial fortune? Maybe it was the Manor's resident chef, who dreams of owning his own restaurant, or the strange hired kitchen girl who helps him. And what's lurking in the rusty old freezer in the guest cottage?

All the dark secrets spilling out of Cheverell Manor got me thinking about the fascinating English phrase "safe as hou ses," those reassuring words bred from the same culture that perfected the country-house murder mystery. No one understands better than the English that houses aren't really safe at all, that bombs can assail them from above and that bad ends can come from within. At the same time, there's a nursery comfort in the tidiness of closed-room mysteries, in the calm untangling of clues within their manageable environments. And no one is better than James at maintaining this tension between the cozy and the frightful, the controlled and the uncontrollable -- whether her hothouse setting is Cheverell Manor, or the hospital in "Shroud for a Nightingale" (1971), the church in "A Taste for Death" (1986) or the publishing offices in "Original Sin" (1995).

Is James, through the valedictory mood of Adam Dalgliesh, signaling her own retirement? "The Private Patient" suggests that there's plenty of death left in the queen of crime. Yet there's also a wistful pleasure in the image of the hardworking novelist and her vigilant detective, the baroness and the commander, walking off toward an unfixed future, hand in hand.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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