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Tom Chaney: P.D. James: Better and Better

Of Writers And Their Books: P.D. James: Better and Better. Tom says, while James is a superb weaver of plot, she draws her characters with subtlety and depth. This column first appeared 8 January 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The People of the Book

By Tom Chaney

P.D. James: Better and Better

No day is entirely gloomy when a new P.D. James novel comes along. I celebrated the breaking of the year with The Lighthouse, the latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery. It is so fine that it is difficult to talk about without waxing inordinately incoherent.

This is her seventeenth mystery, and it is not nearly enough. She wrote an autobiography in 2000 on her eightieth birthday and has returned once more to Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard.

Dalgliesh with two associates is sent to investigate the death of a prominent author, Nathan Oliver, on the fictional island of Combe, off the Cornwall coast, a privately owned island soon to be the site of a hush-hush gathering of heads of state.

Oliver is found hanging from the rail of the Combe Island lighthouse. At first suicide is assumed until pressure marks are found that could not have been made by the climbing rope by which he is strung up.

The Lighthouse is a traditional British mystery only in the sense that it has a finite number of suspects without the possibility of anyone from off the island being involved.

But that is where James transcends the ranks of the likes of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. For, while James is a superb weaver of plot, she draws her characters with subtlety and depth that causes her work to reach the level of "finely crafted prose," as the San Francisco Chronicle observed.

Combe Island is administered as an exclusive resort offering peace and privacy to an elite clientele. Other than staff, the only permanent resident is Emily Holcombe, the last descendant of the owners of the island. She is there permanently by right of a trust deed.

James' deft hand with character is shown by her description of the eighty-year-old Miss Holcombe as she steps from her shower. "She had always been handsome, some thought beautiful, certainly not pretty.... Some men had found her intimidating; others -- among them the more intelligent -- were challenged by her barbed wit and responded to her latent sexuality. All her lovers had given her pleasure, none had caused her pain, and the pain she had caused them had long been forgotten, and even at the time had left her unburdened by remorse."

The victim, Oliver, has the right to visit the island as often as he likes by virtue of the same trust since he was born on the island, the last person to be able to claim that right. He wishes to usurp Miss Holcombe, for he desires to live there on a permanent basis displacing her from her chosen cottage.

Oliver is cared for by his daughter Miranda who plans to marry Oliver's secretary/editor Dennis Tremlett. When Miranda reveals their plans to Oliver the night before his death, he flies into a rage, banishing the lovers despite their care to continue seeing to his needs after the wedding.

Tremlett, unacknowledged by Oliver, is largely responsible for the continuing success of Oliver's novels. Oliver is past the peak of his powers but refuses to admit the fact. The novelist has always worked by consuming those whose stories he appropriates for his fictional purposes. In fact, it is at first suspected that his death might have been unintended suicide -- an attempt to see first hand just what the act of hanging involves.

Rupert Maycroft, administrator for the island is a recently widowed attorney from a firm on the mainland that has managed the trust's affairs for some time. He leaves his unsatisfying practice after the accidental death of his wife in an automobile accident. "He had been glad to get away" from the well meaning hostesses who would find him a wife. "Mentally he paraphrased Jane Austen: A widower in possession of a house and a comfortable income must be in want of a wife....

"He had now been on Combe for eighteen months. Cut off from the reassuring routines which had buttressed the inner self, he found himself ironically more at peace and yet more prone to inner questioning...." At first the island had confused him. Like all beauty, it both solaced and disturbed. It held an extraordinary power to compel introspection, not all of it gloomy, but most of it searching enough to induce discomfort.

Among the other staff and temporary residents lies enough motive for several murders. There is Jago the boatman whose grandfather was, according to local lore, murdered by Oliver's father years ago.

Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith assist Dalgliesh on the island. In fact they take over the investigation when a SARS related infection puts AC Dalgliesh out of the running.

Before the mystery is solved there is another murder -- that of a failed priest who is bludgeoned to death on the natural stone altar in the island's chapel.

Further than that I will not go, for I urge you to become acquainted with P.D. James who at the age of eighty-four is no novelist like Oliver. Her powers are undiminished. Her stories ripen like old wine.

Editorial Note: James revealed in 2011 that The Private Patient (2008) was the final Dalgliesh novel.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-12-08 03:40:25
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