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It’s a Mystery: All Hail the Queen

The Private Patient

By P.D. James
Knopf, 2008

Baroness James of Holland Park has brought forth her 18th novel in her 88th year. As any mystery buff worth his spy glass knows, the Baroness is also P.D. James and in the world of detective fiction her other title is “queen of crime.”

In her latest, The Private Patient, her charismatic Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard and his special investigating team have been summoned to a remote corner of Dorset. There, in Cheverell Manor, a grand Tudor home converted to a private plastic surgery clinic, a renowned investigative journalist, Rhoda Gradwyn, has been killed while recovering from surgery. Dalgliesh and his crew confront a formidable list of suspects beginning with the head of the clinic, the world famous Master of Surgery, George Chandler-Powell. Dalgliesh skillfully sorts through the secrets of the tightly knit community that is Chandler-Powell’s domestic and clinic staff, his other more private world, and that of Gradwyn, the victim. The latter, it turns out, is a ruthless “stalker of minds” devoted to uncovering painful truths best left alone.

And, up from under, in this mix of suspects, the stones of Cheverell Manor that James cleverly inserts as “atmosphere” serve as a secret and pivotal clue. A low wall, more landmark than a barrier, separates the Manor from this circle of twelve stones said to be three thousand years old. The stones, as Dalgliesh discovers, had a brief connection with the victim and, possibly, the murderer.

As always, James creates a special brand of intrigue. She deftly confronts the mystery at hand and links it to our moral landscape. She hints that this is Dalgliesh’s last case, and gives us longed for insights into his inner turmoil:

Dalgliesh reflected that murder, a unique crime for which no reparation is ever possible, imposes its own compulsions as well as its conventions…. As a young officer, he, too, had been touched, if unwillingly and temporarily, by the power of murder to attract even while it appalled and repelled.

Finally, along the way, James grants him love. As a friend at his wedding says:

The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.

If this is his swan song, we couldn’t ask for a better one. On every level, The Private Patient delivers the best that P.D. James has to give.She was created Baroness in 1991, but entered the world in humbler yet happy circumstances. As she says in her 1999 autobiography, entitled Time to Be in Earnest: “I was a much wanted first child.” P(hyllis) D(orothy) James was born in Oxford and educated at Cambridge Girls’ High School. She worked as a Red Cross nurse during World War II. She married Connor Bantry White in 1941; he returned from the war mentally ill and she helped nurse him until his death in1964. She supported herself and their two daughters by administrating several psychiatric units for the National Health Service from 1949 to 1968. All told, she spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Britain’s Home Office. It was invaluable experience for her novels:

…I carried on working years after it would have been possible to live by my writing—if occasionally precariously. I found that to be part of the working world was a powerful inspiration as well as providing useful background information.

Not so incidentally, the charming, highly selective “Autobiography” was begun in her 77th year and inspired by the Samuel Johnson quote: “At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.”

Today, P.D. James is considered one of the finest authors of crime fiction. The recipient of many awards and honors, in 1999 she received the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award for long-term achievement. Anything but pigeonholed, she has transcended the genre twice to create mainstream fiction and, indeed, in her hands, many of her detective novels could qualify as mainstream. As she tells us:

It didn’t occur to me to begin with anything other than a detective story. …I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. …The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be.

Her debut novel Cover Her Face was published in Great Britain in 1962. Its cozy country house setting owes a debt to Agatha Christie but there the resemblance ends. The story line is multilayered, unconventional in execution, and with its concern for unwed mothers demonstrates the strong social conscience present in all her subsequent novels. Cover Her Face introduces Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. A policeman and practicing, published poet, Dalgliesh is erudite, exacting, self-sufficient, sensitive, with a critical intelligence that does not suffer fools gladly. James adores him although, she confesses, he is most assuredly “an uncomfortable colleague. …And were I a murderer, he is the last man I would wish to have allocated to my case.” The loss of his wife in childbirth, and the son she was carrying shortly thereafter, gives him a highly romantic aura which enables him to stay (somewhat) uncommitted where women are concerned.

Martin Shaw as Adam Dalgliesh in the BBC’s Death in Holy Orders

As I have noted, James departed from detective novels twice. Once, with Innocent Blood (1980) which put her on the literary map, as it were. Once again, with The Children of Men (1992), whose futuristic bent surprised her readers, confounded many critics, engendered a good deal of controversy.In 1973 she introduced a young woman detective, Cordelia Gray, in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Dalgliesh is present but it is her case. She reappears in The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982). Gray has her following, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman won James her first Silver Dagger, but it is decidedly Dalgliesh that has captured and kept the hearts and minds of her legion of fans.

Over the years, James and her Dalgliesh have grown together to give us endless reading pleasure. Herewith, my sampler of venerable James titles including her three favorites: The Black Tower, A Taste for Death, and Original Sin.

Unnatural Causes (1967). An oarless dinghy is found drifting just within sight of the Suffolk Coast. It contains the body of a beautifully dressed middle-aged man whose hands chopped off at the wrists eerily contrast with his highly polished shoes. The body is that of famed detective novelist Maurice Seton and his death has more than a little in common with his latest oeuvre. Dalgliesh, on holiday in the region, is drawn, almost against his will, into the investigation of a particularly ingenious murder.

A Shroud for a Nightingale (1971). Set in a nursing hospital outside of London, Dalgliesh has been called in to investigate the murder of a student nurse poisoned in full view of her peers while helping to demonstrate a routine medical procedure. (Where to hide a tree but in a forest!) Dalgliesh skillfully skewers the guilty secrets of the closed community where nearly everyone he encounters is hiding something. In 1995, A Shroud for a Nightingale was named one of the top 100 mystery novels of all time by the Mystery Writers of America.

The Black Tower (1975). The setting is Dorset but not the posh Dorset of The Private Patient. Rather a bleak clifftop home for the permanently disabled, Toynton Grange. Adam Dalgliesh, now Commander, while recuperating from a serious illness, is summoned there for advice by an old friend who is the Chaplain to Toynton. On his arrival he discovers his friend has died and his body has been conveniently cremated. What unfolds is a tale of malice, hatred and greed defined by the themes of loss, regret and despair that is the hallmark of the chronically ill. James, with her unerring eye for detail, constructs a thoroughly convincing atmosphere in which events move towards a terrifying climax.

A Taste for Death (1986). This novel marks Dalgiesh’s return after nine years and it is as ambitious as it is enthralling. A tramp and a Minister of the Crown are found dead in the vestry of an unprepossessing London church. The Minister’s “grieving” family are shocked and deeply mystified – or are they? As Dalgliesh and his assistants search for connections between the two men, they uncover old scandals that shed light on the present in new and disturbing ways. And the closer they come to solving the case, the greater the realization that proving it will not only be difficult but dangerous.

Devices and Desires (1989). Commander Dalgliesh has just published a new book of poems and has taken a brief respite from publicity on the remote Larksoken headland in a converted windmill left to him by his aunt. But, for the Commander, there is no respite from murder. Larksoken’s centerpiece is its Nuclear Power Station and soon after the Commander’s arrival its Acting Administrative Officer is found dead. Throw in a psychotic strangler of young women in the area, as high strung a group of residents as you are likely to find anywhere, and you have a tale of high caliber suspense. Not to mention an examination of human life in the age of anxiety.

Original Sin (1995). A murder has taken place in the offices of the Peverell Press, Britain’s oldest book publisher. The victim is the brilliant and ruthless new Managing Director Gerard Etienne. Between authors, colleagues, lovers and friends, Etienne has amassed a dazzling array of enemies. For Commander Dalgliesh and his team, this means a plethora of suspects. It also means that things are seldom what they seem. Close attention must be paid. Nothing can be taken for granted. James is at the top of her sleight of hand form.

I encountered P.D. (as I affectionately think of her) early on. And, like most diehard mystery reviewers, have the hubris to think of her as my discovery that the rest of the world caught up to. Now, the Baroness and her Commander are old friends with the world at their nimble feet. What is remarkable is that there is no let down between the anticipation of each new novel and the execution. The lady is always elegant, erudite, and enigmatic enough to never disappoint.

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Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.