three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
P. D. James
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Private PatientThe Private Patient is the 14th installment in the award-winning British author P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh mystery series (after The Lighthouse, 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2006).

The Story: Famed investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn enters Cheverell Manor, a private plastic surgery clinic in Dorset, to have an old scar removed; the 47-year-old woman is found dead a few days later. Called in to investigate the case, Commander Adam Dalgliesh questions those connected with the murder—including the surgeon and the manor’s domestic and medical staff—as he ruminates on aging and other issues. Certainly, Rhoda had been vilified for her reporting, but no clear motive exists, despite the inconsistencies in the suspects’ stories. Then, a second murder occurs on the clinic’s premises, and the motives for both murders seem as obscure as ever.
Knopf. 352 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0307270777

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"James (also known as Baroness James) knows the English upper crust and their exceedingly civil worldview, and she serves up a strong brew of social climbing, petty jealousies, score settling, gossip, and backstabbing worthy of the nastiest Evelyn Waugh novel. Throughout, her prose style remains as stately and proper as Cheverell Manor." Chuck Leddy

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[James] leaves behind a host of moral ambiguities for readers intent on answers. … Complications abound as Dalgliesh and his lieutenants follow narrative threads as rich and complicated as the novels of Iris Murdoch or Charles Dickens." Kit Reed

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"But with James in charge, [stock characters] expand their functional roles to become complex individuals with troubled psychological histories. Even Rhoda Gradwyn, the patient who arrives at the clinic so she can be offered up to the plot as a murder victim, turns out to be a person of parts." Marilyn Stasio

Times (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"All the usual James hallmarks are present: an unpleasant victim, a further death in a place of worship, references to the work of Jane Austen, discussions on the nature of good and evil, guilt and innocence; and a strange assortment of suspects, none of whom seems to have a motive. … Adam Dalgliesh (named after one of James’s teachers) has been one of crime fiction’s most interesting and original creations." Marcel Berlins

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"In a story that explicitly reminds one of its characters of Agatha Christie’s classic manor-house mystery And Then There Were None, Ms. James spends time luxuriantly introducing each member of the clinic’s elaborate household and signaling their status by means of tweeds, physiognomy, … ability to quote Thomas Hardy’s poetry, fondness for long country walks and the use of words like ‘chatelaine.’… But the plotting of The Private Patient is not up to this author’s diabolical best." Janet Maslin

Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"Two things are missing, however. One of them is Adam Dalgliesh himself, who, though he’s on the case, seems much of the time only a molecule thick. The other is the sinewy flexibility of technique that linked form to theme in novels like Cover Her Face." M. John Harrison

Critical Summary

Both P. D. James and Adam Dalgliesh, both in their 80s, have aged like fine wine. Critics agreed that if The Private Patient, a closed-room mystery, is not among the best in the series, it nonetheless outranks most crime fiction. James brings her usual intellect to bear on this novel: literary references and philosophical discussions; an elegant, leisurely style; a highly atmospheric setting; suspicious distant relatives; and meaningful coincidences. Reviewers diverged, however, on the characterization and plotting. Some thought the characters were psychologically complex, while others thought they—along with the plot—were "reduced to a kind of box-ticking" (Guardian). Finally, Dalgliesh didn’t seem completely present—perhaps in anticipation of his imminent retirement and marriage.