Monday, 15 December 2008

The Private Patient

The Private Patient, the latest Adam Dalgleish mystery by P.D. James, has received mixed reviews, but I really enjoyed it and think it perhaps her best since the wonderful Devices and Desires (which is my favourite James novel, and features on my ‘personal best’ list.)

The set-up is compelling. Rhoda Gradwyn, a merciless investigative journalist, has suffered a facial disfigurement since her terrible childhood. She now has the money and, more importantly, the inclination, to undergo cosmetic surgery and she enrols as a patient of an eminent surgeon called Chandler-Powell, whose main clinic, Cheverell Manor, is in Dorset, close to an eerie gathering of ancient stones. But there are people at the Manor who have an assortment of motives for murder, and Rhoda is killed one night – the murder scene is one of the most powerful in a powerful book.

There are so many interesting characters in this novel that James sometimes seems unsure about upon whom to focus her main attention. The relationship between the surgeon and his mistress, for instance, is quite lightly sketched. Because there is so much in the story, one or two aspects of it seem superfluous – especially a tacked-on sub-plot about a brutal attack on a minor character called Annie. The ending seems a bit rushed and unsatisfactory – I had to re-read it to pick up all the nuances (though that might be due to my careless re-reading first time around.)

I mention these quibbles simply because James sets the bar high and is an author to be judged by demanding standards. But make no mistake - this is, overall, a highly impressive traditional mystery. Some might say it is a fine achievement for a detective novelist aged 88. I think a detective novelist of any age would be proud to have written it.


Jilly said...

I too thought it one of her best but I also felt some of it was a bit rushed and it could almost have done with being between 50 and 100 pages longer. Perhaps that would have been too long for the book buying public.

Nan said...

I may have mentioned in another comment that I bought this for my husband's parents. They too are in their 80s, and if I were, it would boost me no end to read a book by someone my age.

Martin Edwards said...

Jilly, it's not often that I think a book is too short, but in this case, I do agree.
Nan, me too! It's an admirable achievement.