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Pickle Me This

April 10, 2009

The Private Patient by P.D. James

Apart from the plot twists and the suspense, of course, one of the best parts about P.D. James’ The Private Patient was its unabashed bookishness. That not only is Commander Adam Dalglish that unique combination of published poet/murder investigator, but every suspect he meets is assessed by the state of their library. Whether the books are carefully ordered with their heights fitting carefully into the shelves, or cluttered in piles about a room, or falling down where gaps in the collection have arisen. Character further established by literary references (or lack of), and self-conscious references to detective fiction.

This was my first “Adam Dalgleish Mystery”, and I was pleased that my lack of background didn’t undermine the reading experience. Though I could discern the basics– Dalgliesh leads and elite team of murder investigators, his fiancee Emma is esconced at Cambridge and he keeps her apart from his working life, that he is growing wary of murder scenes, and perhaps his retirement is nigh?

But we don’t meet Dalgliesh until a third of the way into the book, the initial chapters focussed on staff at Cheverell Manor, a private clinic for cosmetic surgery, and the eponymous patient, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She’s booked in for a routine operation, albeit not an easy one– the removal of a conspicuous scar from her face. But the proceeding goes as expected, she is sure to recover, and then the morning after she is discovered strangled in her bed. Suspects a plenty– her toy-boy who stands to inherit from her will, his cousins who live at Cheverell Manor and have their own stories to protect, anyone who might have it in for Mr. Chandler-Powell and his clinic (and private medicine?). Gradwyn’s own assortment of enemies, people she might have exposed throughout her career, or perhaps any one of the clinic’s staff whose alibis might be too convenient. (There being no butler, he was not a suspect).

I will admit that I found the beginning of the book a bit plodding, and thought that any book so literarily aware of itself, employing such an expansive vocabulary could well have taken better care to avoid expository dialogue in lieu of plot. But once Dalgliesh and his team’s investigation began, I was hooked, surprised by twists and revelations, intrigued by the psychology shown here of detective work, and the dynamics of the police team. It was clear to me why James is cited as a master of crime fiction, why Dalgliesh has enjoyed such enduring popularity, and how disappointed will be readers if his career has really come to an end.

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