‘The Private Patient,’ by P. D. James

The Private Patient

Bestselling author P. D. James died in 2014. I was embarrassed to discover that I had thus far failed to read her final novel, The Private Patient, which was published way back in 2008. If you’ve been waiting for my review, read on.

In the later books of her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, Baroness Phyllis adopted the strategem of setting her murders within somewhat isolated communities, in part bridging the gap between the police procedural and the traditional English “cozy” mystery. The Private Patient continued and capped that pattern. The location here is Cheverell Manor, a beautiful old estate in the county of Dorset. George Chandler-Powell, a prominent plastic surgeon, has acquired the property and set up a private clinic there, where his richest and most celebrated patients can get their tummy tucks and face-lifts in luxurious privacy.

One of his patients is Rhoda Gradwyn, a prominent investigative journalist. Rhoda carries an ugly facial scar, a souvenir of a childhood with a brutal, drunken father. Now, in her 40s, she asks to have the scar removed, telling Chandler-Powell that she “no longer has need of it.” A couple members of his live-in staff urge him not to admit the woman to Cheverell House, since they know of her work and mistrust her.

The night after her surgery, Rhoda is murdered. A few days later, another guest of the estate is murdered as well.

Called in to investigate Rhoda’s murder, and the second murder in its turn, is Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, along with a male and a female assistant. Dalgliesh is contemplating retirement, and is preparing to marry his long-time romantic interest. He and his team work their way systematically through the estate residents, uncovering old secrets and unimagined connections.

This is classic James; there are no surprises in the execution, though there are several in the unfolding narrative. James planned this book as the swan song for Dalgliesh; she ties up loose ends in his relationships while wrapping up the mystery – many discoveries actually come after the case has been put to bed. At least one revelation was a real surprise to me (though I’m not hard to surprise, really).

As you’d expect, there’s a valedictory quality to The Private Patient. I may well be imagining things, but I thought I perceived a farewell here not only to the cast of characters, but to England and the Christian west. I understood the author to suggest that England is done, but that the best part of Englishness will go on – probably somewhere else.

A good book. A satisfying conclusion to a classic series. Nothing really to caution you about in terms of content.

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