August 21, 2008


Deadly serious: a review of The Private Patient by P D James (Simon Akam, 21 August 2008, New Statesman)

The novel is also the 14th outing for James's poetry-penning investigator hero, Adam Dalgliesh. And while a detective is inevitably a detective story staple, the focus on his personal life is another factor that fleshes out the heart and the art of this novel. When Dalgliesh's fiancée drives down to break the news of the rape of a friend of hers to him, and to appeal for his help, two strands entwine neatly. It is his job as well as their relationship that has drawn him to her at that moment, yet his job will not permit him to intrude on another case and help her directly.

Of course, Dalgliesh's life has an element of artificiality. He first appeared in James's 1962 novel Cover Her Face, and therefore, to choose a suitable genre fiction parallel, his career in crime-fighting is now of a similar length to that of Biggles in aviation. Yet, pointedly, Biggles was never allowed to get married.

Baroness James is 88 this year, and another striking aspect of what one hopes is not her last novel is the sensitive descriptions of old age. The retired lawyer whose revelations are the final piece of the plot jigsaw resides in an institution where "care had been taken not to distress visitors by displaying any notice bearing the words retirement, elderly, nursing or home". It is fitting that James, who has previously drawn on her own experience in the NHS and the Home Office in her fiction, should now paint old age with such an acute eye.

So, if The Private Patient sounds a trumpet call for the literary validity of detective fiction, it does so at a propitious time. The writers of the much-lauded Baltimore crime drama The Wire have recently spoken seriously about their use of Greek tragic motifs, and have been listened to. If it is acceptable even on television, surely the time has come for the odd written murder to be acceptable as genuinely highbrow. Even if the punter still wants, and needs, to know whodunnit.

Her last, The Lighthouse, made it seem she was about ready to put Adam out to pasture. And Roy Marsden turns up as a bad guy on Foyle's War and Rebus these days, having turned the role of Dalgliesh over to Martin Shaw (sadly, just before doing Death in Holy Orders, the best of her works, except perhaps for Children of Men). But with RD Wingfield, Rebus, Charlie Resnick and Morse all gone the past few years, we'll can use a last couple from the Dame.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2008 7:15 AM
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