The Private Patient, P D James’ latest Adam Dalgleish mystery, is another elegant piece of writing and a fine crime thriller; it can hardly fail to satisfy Miss James’ hordes of fans. It is largely set in Dorset, though that lovely county plays a very passing role. The Dalgleish team is still strong, and James uses it to explore a lot of well known themes now – compassion, guilt, the happiness of individuals against the value of doing a job society needs; and, in what is perhaps a farewell gesture, she has allowed Dalgleish happiness at last; even Sayers didn’t keep Wimsey from the altar this long! But is it too critical, too cautiously judgemental to think that some of the easy magic has worn thin over the years? The Private Patient is very fine, but she has set herself a very high standard over many novels, and it may be that this is not her best. But how unfair criticism is – and one knows how hard it is to write a single good sentence, let alone a novel – comparison with the ineptitudes of Michael Underwood, for example, makes me realise what an achievement it is to write a crime novel which is well written, surprising but plausible, and full of human as well as forensic interest. So my criticism is very cautious!
The plot starts simply, with an investigative journalist deciding to have cosmetic surgery to remove a scar she has had from childhood – from a drunken assault by her father, though there is a carefully rehearsed story of minor domestic accident for public consumption. One obvious question – why has she waited almost forty years to deal with this – is posed, and is placed en prise at the start of the novel; you assume that answering this question will help Dalgleish work out why, when attending the converted Dorset manor house for her operation, she is murdered. If you’re worried that I’ll spoil the plot, you can skip the next paragraph, although I promise not to reveal who or why done it!
Of course, as an investigative journalist, she has a nose for dirt – and there’s scope for a few significant detours from the main plot here; one of them is truly impressive and challenging, but the final product is somehow unsatisfying. But equally, there is less of the confrontation than we are used to – some of the lies only we know, and Dalgleish spends less time forcing the truth out of his witnesses than usual. On the other side of the coin, there are, perhaps unusually for James, several warm and positive lines in the story, although they are developed in the sketchiest fashion, and sometimes only near the end. But the end of what – of the investigation and the novel? Surely not just that – with Dalgleish having got engaged to Emma in a previous book, this one opens with him visiting his future father-in-law to inform him; and there are strong indications that the special unit Dagleish heads is to be disbanded. Is this, in fact, the last Dalgleish novel?
Overall, this is a fine read, with a good mixture of murder and detection, psychological drama, human interest, and a peppering of landscape, history and ritual. If you don’t know P D James and Adam Dalgleish, this would be a perfectly good book to start with, although an odd one in terms of his development. If you know them well, you will not think this their greatest hour, but you will not be disappointed either.