P.D. James

The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

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Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James

pdjamesI finished this book in a couple of days while recovering from a nasty cold. This was in fact the first P.D. James novel I’ve read in my life – despite their enormous popularity they just never fell in my lap before, even though I quite like the crime genre. As the title suggests, this one is set in an Anglican theological college on the Suffolk coast, where a young, rather unpopular ordinand is found dead under a collapsed mound of sand (first time I’ve seen this method of death in a book, so full points for originality). His death is dismissed as an accident, until his father receives an anonymous note hinting at foul play, and being the kind of powerful man who is accustomed to getting his way, he insists that Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard takes over the investigation. For Dalgliesh, it’s a chance to return to the place of many fond memories he’d visited as a boy. More bodies start to pile up even before he arrives, when the elderly woman who discovered the boy’s remains is murdered and her death passed off as natural – you pretty much know she’s doomed when she remembers something described as important and tells someone about it.

I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, mostly because of the backdrop of St. Anselm’s college, which is in danger of being closed down by the Church of England for being too remote and elitist – it’s so isolated that all access can be blocked by a fallen tree on the road. Like most insular places it’s got a distinct atmosphere of its own and is populated by a bunch of interesting, finely drawn characters. There’s a sparse, melancholic, contemplative feel to the story along with some nice observations of human nature, as the characters’ messy pasts and relationships get untangled. At times I couldn’t figure out what decade this book was taking place in – despite the occasional mention of mobile phones there’s something quaint and musty about it; I couldn’t work out if it was the author’s style or the nature of the setting.

Unfortunately I felt that much of the book’s charm goes out of the window in the second half, especially when Dalgliesh’s colleagues arrive from London and the novel gets taken over by the investigative mechanics. The unravelling of the mystery was somewhat anti-climatic, where in the last 50 pages I was expecting a major twist to happen, which never materialised – instead you realise that the last stretch was simply about finding the evidence rather than discovering the real culprit. Not exactly riveting. Overall though, it’s a well-written book and I’d be interested to read more by the author.

I gather that P.D. James really wasn’t a fan of Agatha Christie’s work – one scornful reference to her books is random, but two definitely point at a deliberate dislike.