Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Private Patient by P.D. James

There are some books that leap to the top of the pile when they arrive at my door. They aren't necessarily the best books. But there is something so compulsive about reading them that the usual quandaries I have about what should take precedence, and how I'm ever going to get around to such and such evaporate around certain titles, and I find that somehow there is time, ample time for me to read them whenever they appear.

The work of P.D. James is a case in point. I have just read her latest and, limited by honor not to give away too much of the plot, I find myself wondering why and how I have managed to read almost all her books over the years, and watched the PBS/BBC dramatizations too.

It isn't that I think that she is the greatest mystery writer qua mystery writer of all time. In fact, I don't usually care all that much about the mystery aspect of her books, although of course I find the way it drives the story along entertaining. But I tend to find the actual resolutions of her stories a tad disappointing. At least, I don't find them thrilling or 'fiendishly clever' or any of the usual descriptive things that usually pump up sales.

In fact, as I peel away at the onion, it becomes less certain what it is I do like about the books. The characters, i.e., the suspects, but sometimes the crime solvers too, are rendered in a cold and definitely unflattering light. They are almost always either unlikable people, or likable people who are for all intents and purposes idiots.

You might think it's the great detective himself, then, our Adam Dalgleish, who is so riveting. Perhaps once. But now I find him slightly tedious--his strains, his age, and especially his love life. A long time ago James wrote An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and it was clear to her fan base that Cordelia Grey was the right woman for the great detective. Dame James thought not. The dilemma of love, marriage, and all the attendant responsibilities that Dalgleish preoccupies himself with over his new love Emma in the more recent books is tedious and at times downright boring. I may be wrong--perhaps there is some contingent of Dalgleish worshippers who have just been pining for him to find the right woman and settle down. It seems unlikely.

So why the hell do I read these books, you ask? Okay, I ask. And I think the answer is, because of the beauty with which they unfold. Her books are aesthetically satisfying, even if emotionally, well, maybe not so much.

This book, and it's taken me a long time to even get to an aside about its details, has to do with the murder of an investigative reporter who has gone to a country facility to have an old scar removed. You will no that she's the victim early on, yet even she is given an inner life and compulsion. What James is so good at is in investing us all with the sense that this place, Cheverall Manor, has a life. As time after time she has done with similar settings in the past, she builds it up from the ground, first the physical architecture, but then the daily structure, the routine of such a place as well. You sense that she is meticulous in plotting all this--you are not going to catch her out on the floorplan--physical, emotional, spiritual of any of her books. It seems that if you could somehow walk into the world that James has invented, you would not come to an edge where there were gray bits, where the reality of it suddenly stopped.

And yet, for all that, there remain mysteries.On the way to her first visit to Cheverell Manor, Rhoda Gradwyn, designated murder victim, gets overwhelmed by a storm, and has to stop, sitting in her car till the rain subsides. The sequence that follows is about her past, her inner life, her reasons for having an old scar removed. None of that has much to do with her life as an investigative reporter-- which is the part of her life that may have something to do with her death.

Early on, she tells the surgeon who will do the necessary cosmetic work that she is having the scar removed now, because she no longer has need of it. What this means exactly, I, at least, never figured out. But it does remind you rather poignantly that this character did not in fact go to a country clinic to be a convenient plot device in a murder investigation. She went as someone involved in her own story, who wanted only to be healed.