The Private Patient by P. D. James (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008) 395pp.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mystery author in the possession of a very good story, is rarely in want of readers--especially if that writer is P. D. James.
Phyllis Dorothy James, born in Oxford in 1920, began writing fiction in the cold war era of the mid-1950s while raising a family and working at a London hospital in administration. Her first book, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 by the venerable publishing house of Faber & Faber which at the time was perhaps more known for its distinguished list of poets and literary authors. It was an ideal marriage. P. D. James's detective, Adam Dalgliesh, wrote poetry, slim volumes to be published by Faber & Faber. James has remained with the firm for the past 46 years in what appears to be a happy marriage for all concerned.
Faber recently reported that over a specific Christmas holiday period, ebook sales of her latest mystery, The Private Patient, reached 750 copies ( 1,200 copies total when sales of her other titles were included) only challenged by Faber's ebook sales of the popular British QI books, The Book of General Ignorance and Advanced Banter at 800 copies. ( Canadians and American are perhaps less familiar with the popular British QI comedy quiz show created by John Lloyd and hosted by the wonderfully convivial and erudite Stephen Fry--who, by the way, has recently become the presiding genius in the land of Twitter--but P. D. James is certainly a household name across North America. ) Much has certainly changed in the publishing world since her initial cloth bound début: talking books on cassettes and cds, downloads to ipods and now the more recent and significantly important ebooks which, it seems, alters the very nature of publishing.
Her literary output of 20 books over 46 years is respectable and she has had a steady and loyal readership. Her latest book, The Private Patient, shows no sign of diminished power due to her age. Her prose is as finely crafted and acutely perceptive as ever, her formal diction and construction is detailed and sharp and she slips in echoes and quotes from one of her favourite authors, Jane Austen. In P. D. James's richly descriptive prose there is a delicate balance between the inner psychological life of the characters and the exterior world and setting in which they move. The settings of London and Dorset are evocative but do not dominate. As well, her stalwart detective, now Commander Adam Dalgliesh, does not dominate the book either, for his assistants, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith form a triadic balance of inquiry, and each are given stage presence.
Rhoda Gradwyn, a 47 year old investigative journalist, a private, rather enigmatic person, has decided to have plastic surgery to remove a facial scar she has had for 34 years. This scar has shaped her life. The natural reaction of adults was to look away from the scar, and so this enabled her to observe people, and she became an astute and perceptive student of human behavior. It also shaped her life's interest which was "in finding out what others kept hidden." [p.8] She has decided on an exclusive clinic at Cheverell Manor in Dorset--complete with a neolithic stone circle, the Cheverell Stones--owned and operated by a renowned plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell, and it is here that she meets with her mysterious death. The dozen or so characters whose lives intersect with Rhoda Gradwyn and Cheverell Manor are all given their back stories with detailed yet succinct brushstrokes and each has us wondering if they could be responsible.
With Commander Dalgliesh's appearance, there is a very natural unfolding of information, and we come to learn of stories within stories, and occasional red herrings, but it all is gradually revealed in an organic way. In the last quarter of the novel, there is a concentration on letters and wills and this has a very Charles Dickens/Wilkie Collins feel, providing a resonance with the past.
When Commander Dalgliesh makes his appearance in the second section, he is in a very Jane Austen/Oscar Wilde position of being interviewed by his future father-in-law over the offer of marriage to his daughter Emma Lavenham, a character introduced in Death in Holy Orders. Marriage is a theme in the book--perhaps a nod to Austen. Although each marriage is different in nature--much like Austen again--they involve older couples which perhaps reflects modern society. Commander Dalgliesh, often referred to as AD, is also in for possible career changes as bureaucratic machinations may bring an end to the Special Investigative Squad he heads up. We are left wondering what may become of Commander Dalgliesh, and P. D. James provides us with a few rumours to think about. Dalgliesh muses that a job in the upper echelons of bureaucracy would not offer much inspiration for his poetry.
Will this be the last mystery novel by P. D. James? I hope not.