Monday, April 20, 2009

P. D. James: The Private Patient

P. D. James' most recent novel is The Private Patient. It is as enjoyable as her previous mysteries featuring Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police, Commander of the Special Squad which handles crimes of a sensitive nature--generally politically sensitive.

Dalgliesh gets a call at a particularly inappropriate moment--at the first meeting with his prospective father-in-law to announce that he wishes to marry his daughter. This isn't a surprise for fans of P. D. James, for all of Dalgliesh's romances have been interrupted the same way--his job comes first. It is no different now. This time, Dalgliesh is informed that No. 10 has has requested that his squad investigate a murder.

The private patient of the title is the victim in James' fourteenth Dalgliesh mystery. Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, has finally decided to undergo plastic surgery to remove a scar on her cheek that she got in childhood. When the surgeon asked her why she had waited so long to have it removed, she enigmatically responded, "Because I no longer have need of it."
Unfortunately she never gets the chance to see the effects of the surgery for she is murdered just hours after the operation.

The format follows James' usual pattern--a careful introduction to the victim, suspects, and, at this point, the unknown murderer. By the time Dalgliesh is called in, the reader knows much about the people involved. James pulls no tricks; she always plays fair with the reader. The reader rides along with Dalgliesh and his team as they work their way through the mass of information, frequently contradictory, about the victim and suspects. There are no last minute surprises: the murderer who suddenly appears in the last chapters or a detective who finally reveals crucial information in the last chapter that he or she has known from an early chapter or a sudden and inexplicable burst of insight that leaves the reader wondering where that came from.

To keep readers aware of the progress of the investigation, James has Dalgliesh conduct an evening review with his team of the events of the day and the state of the investigation. This helps to cut back the amount of time needed at the end to sum up the evidence against the individual arrested and charged with the crime. In this way, the readers slowly begin to form their own ideas about the identity of the murderer, as the list of suspects begins to shorten.

I find a subplot in this work that has little to do with the crime under investigation. It has to do with Commander Dalgliesh himself, and his future. His team seems to feel that the Squad is not going to last much longer. There are rumors that the Squad will be broken up, that Dalgliesh will be promoted and transferred upstairs, that Dalgliesh will retire. Moreover, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, perhaps the one who has been on the Squad the longest, has just gotten a promotion and feels that this may be the last investigation with the Squad for her. A transfer seems inevitable with the promotion.

In addition, while still the focus of the work, Dalgliesh is seen less often in this work than in the previous novels. We spend more time with the Squad than in the past. The reader also gets more background about several members of the Squad.

Another interesting point is Dalgliesh's engagement. As I mentioned earlier, he has been close to remarrying several times in the past, but the woman always left when she discovered his job came first. This relationship is different. In fact, there's a touch of James's favorite author, Jane Austen, here. Dalgliesh's fiance's name is Emma, the heroine of Austen's Emma. Mr Knightly, Emma's husband-to-be, has also to deal with an eccentric father-in-law. In fact, at the wedding ceremony at the end of the novel, we find this bit of conversation among several of Emma's friends:

"Clara said, 'Jane Austen would seem appropriate. Do you remember Mrs. Elton's comments in the last chapter of Emma? Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!'

'But, remember how the novel ends. But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.'

Clara said, "Perfect happiness is asking for a lot. But they will be happy. And at least, unlike poor Mr. Knightley, Adam won't have to live with his father-in-law.'"

Austen's novels always end with the marriage or coming marriage of the heroine. Is this marriage the end of James' portrayals of the adventures of Commander Adam Dalgliesh? Or perhaps, is there one more coming, in which he will move into an administrative position or perhaps even retire, perhaps not to Sussex and take up beekeeping, but to some quiet out-of-the-way place along the coast and write poetry?

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