P.D.James's The Private Patient from Faber is out now in hardback and the paperback will follow in April 2009. It is thought possible that it could be the last in the Dalgliesh series, given the author's age. If so, it nicely rounds off some open threads for her main characters and if not, it leaves some still in need of resolution, although nothing that would break hearts or cause stress. If it proves to be the last, it contains one sentence which, I believe, will make it memorable:
"Because I no longer have need of it."
This is the reply Rhoda Gradwyn gives her Harley Street plastic surgeon when asked at their first consultation why she has waited thirty four years to seek removal of her facial scar. Three weeks and two days later, just after a successful operation on her scar, she lies dead in her hospital bed. But this is not due to medical complications; she has been strangled.
James manages to conduct a pace with the style that is her own. The murder and the arrival of the police do not take place until about 100 pages into a 395 page novel. Until then, she sets the scene with an exploration of her characters: both victim and suspect across the group centred on a Dorset manor house that has been converted into a private nursing home/hospital. Personal histories are dubious. Ambition is rife or has been thwarted. Money is short. Relationships are ambiguous. Ascerbic comments rasp from sharp tongues. The scene is set: the densest fog that settles over this property comes from the whispers of secrets and not the weather. It is through her characterisation that James draws in her readers and with the great skill they anticipate and have come to know.
As an investigative journalist, Gradwyn will have had millions love her for exposing corruption and ill deeds, but she will also have gained a few enemies. There is perhaps more of the "tell" and not "show" from James of this aspect to Gradwyn's background, with no great focus on an obvious red herring to keep the reader engaged and diverted. But that's because James does better than that. Do we care that Gradwyn's dead? Yes, because of the backstory James has given her; although, perhaps like the police team, at the end of it all we still feel we didn't know her too well.
Some have criticised James for littering her prose with her political thoughts, but I disagree. It did not feel littered to me. Her thoughts and observations are on life today and are a reflection of our contemporary times. She is woman of many years with a lot of common sense, who has seen more changes in life than most of us can ever imagine and when they come, those observations are capable of bringing a wry smile to your face and the thought in your head of "Oh, you are so right".
The novel is not without its faults. I thought the method of policing was a bit "suspect" on times. It felt that more was achieved in terms of investigation progress through a nightly discussion case conference over a bottle of wine than through the situation of gaining hard evidence. But the writing and storytelling both make that something to ignore and the pages turn; and it's that fog of secrets that James concentrates on.
It is not without humour either. Where some have focused on the gardener at the manor, I saw something else. Where we know that Dalgliesh is about to marry Emma, he visits her father to gain approval for the match. The concept itself seems very old-fashioned, but the eccentricity of Emma's father and his respect for the older ways of another generation (and his class) and how he approached the day of reckoning brought smiles to this reader's face. And you have to ask: in this world of single mothers pushing buggies down the road, does this still happen in the mansion blocks of Marylebone?
The Private Patient proved to be an absorbing read. If you seek mysterious entertainment and a dollop of reflection on contemporary life amongst the better off in the UK, this one's for you. James illuminates on one sector of society; provides a mystery to keep you engaged; explores and develops the series characters you love; and throws in some common sense reflection on our contemporary mores to boot. Who could ask for more?