Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Private Patient

Just finished reading The Private Patient (an Adam Dalgliesh mystery) by P D James.

The pervading tone of this latest James’ mystery is Gloom. It’s a while since I read any of her other books (The Murder Room was the last, I think), but I can’t recall there being previously quite such a bleak atmosphere. It’s as if with her exalted age (going on 90) she feels that not only is everything going to the dogs (as one of her characters also feels) but that there isn’t much that’s good in the world. We’re constantly reminded, for instance, whilst in the beautiful Dorset countryside, that small animals are being killed by larger.

Dalgliesh(he of the easily misspelt name) eventually gets married in this one, but there’s little sense of joy about the approaching marriage. Or rather, though James tells us that he experiences joy, as a reader I didn’t feel he did.

And there’s virtually no humour to leaven the gloom; the characters almost all have a kind of dourness about them, or an ugliness. Even the attractive young man, Robin Boyton, is regarded by his friend, Rhoda Gradwyn, as typical of people on whom beauty is wasted, because, in her experience, such people are often mundane, ignorant or stupid. He isn’t, but James gives the impression that he might as well be.

For some reason, James gives us Gradwyn's 'exit signs' in the first paragraph - we know she's going to be the murder victim from the outset, which seems to undermine any suspense.

The plot is convoluted in a typical Jamesian way, almost to the extent that I gave up trying to figure out who did what (let alone whodunit). By the time I’d finished I was still rather puzzled about the murderer’s motives, and what half the other people had to do with it all.

James is a stylish writer, but few of the characters in this book seem to breathe real life. Two or three of those in minor roles briefly give things a lift, (particularly Mrs Skeffington) but the bulk of the main characters talk in such well-ordered language that you strain to think of any real person who’s quite so articulate. (The supposedly 'comic' character, Mogworthy - "Nobody can be called Mogworthy" complains Gradwyn - is as dull as ditchwater.)

Along with Dalgliesh and his bride, another couple gets married at the end. This couple ties the knot without having given the slightest hint throughout the rest of the book of being in the least bit interested in each other.

I know how they felt.


scheng said...

Agree that it's a bit bleak. The whole book is quite depressing.

Mike Crowl said...

Yes, that's how I felt too. Not that you want to 'enjoy' murder mysteries, in a sense, but it's good to have a kind of satisfaction with the book as a whole.