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. Continue reading ‘The Private Patient,’ by P. D. James
Crime novelist Phyllis Dorothy James, also Baroness James of Holland Park, died today in her home. She was 94.
Her publisher states, “This is a very sad day for us at Faber. It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing P. D. James, one of the world’s great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962. She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books. Working with her was always the best of times, full of joy. We will miss her hugely.”
In this interview last year, Lady James talked about growing old with this, “All things rather close down eventually. I was waiting for the old brain to shut down, but I do hope that is the last thing to go.”
I recently finished P.D. James’ The Murder Room (2003) beautifully read by Charles Keating. It is a straight-forward detective novel with enjoyable depth, but not really twists and turns. I see The Complete Review has reviewed it more, um, completely than I plan to here.
The story reveals the three siblings who are trustees of a small, unique museum named Dupayne in the London area opposing each other on whether to sign a new lease and allow the unprofitable museum to continue. Several others associated with the museum are walking around, and, of course, someone gets torched. No, it isn’t an accident, even though some characters want to believe it was suicide.
As I listened, I kept thinking about how the second murder yet to come would change the way I interpreted the details. I thought two or three people could have murder the first person, having motive and opportunity, but why would they kill someone else? I didn’t figure it out ahead of time.
I wonder if James’ mysteries have more to offer in the side trails than on the main road. The Murder Room has a warm chapter with the two of the detectives interviewing one of the fringe couples out of routine. It was a young couple with a baby, the husband being connected to a Paul Nash painting in the Dupayne museum. James’ choice of words in this chapter impressed me as geared toward highlighting the life of the child and this poor couple. They had very little, but they were tied to the past by the husband’s father and grandfather’s interest in that painting, and somehow it seeded hope for them. More so, some words appear to be inspire the reader to reflect on what is being aborted when that ugly choice is made.
Detective Inspector Kate Miskin’s wrestling with British class conflicts and arguments about the nature of girl’s education enrich the story as well.
Author P.D. James has a book about detective fiction with an excerpt here. She writes:
And why murder? The central mystery of a detective story need not indeed involve a violent death, but murder remains the unique crime and it carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear. Readers are likely to remain more interested in which of Aunt Ellie’s heirs laced her nightly cocoa with arsenic than in who stole her diamond necklace while she was safely holidaying in Bournemouth. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night doesn’t contain a murder, although there is an attempt at one, and the death at the heart of Frances Fyfield’s Blood from Stone is a spectacular and mysterious suicide. But, except in those novels of espionage which are primarily concerned with treachery, it remains rare for the central crime in an orthodox mystery to be other than the ultimate crime for which no human reparation can ever be made.
Was P.D. James on to something? There’s a shortage of British sperm and egg donations.
Update 2016: Now a fertility clinic is importing sperm and eggs from Ukraine to make up for what they lack in the UK.
P.D. James discusses life in today’s world:
“Our society is now more fractured than I, in my long life, have ever known it.”
The isolation, she argued, flows from a fear of difference and is fed by the sense, common in our disparate communities, that engagement is not worth the risk.
“Increasingly,” she said, “there is a risk that we will live in ghettoes with our own kind.” Behind the disintegration was a spread of “pernicious” political correctness that made attempts at understanding harder.
“If, in speaking to minorities,” she added, “we have to weigh every word in advance in case, inadvertently, we give offence, how can we be at ease with each other, how celebrate our common humanity?”
“Look at those,” she says, pointing to the heavy bars on her windows. “This is how we live now. Behind bars in our own homes. I find it intimidating but I understand that it is sensible. Several of my friends have been mugged. Some of them quite horribly.”
The problem, she says, starts with the breakdown of the family and refusal of men to act like men. (via Books, Inq.)
Speaking of P.D. James, I love some of her opening sentences.
The Children of Men: “Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty five years, two months and twelve days.”
Death In Holy Orders: “It was Father Martin’s idea that I should write an account of how I found the body.”
A Certain Justice: “Murderers do not usually give their victims notice. This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror.”
Original Sin: “For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.”
I guess I missed the announcement this summer, because I just learned about Mars Hill Audio’s podcast, Audition. Ken Myers’ most recent recording is dedicated to P.D. James’s ideas on fiction and mystery and her sci-fi novel, The Children of Men. I believe I have heard most of this recording in early editions of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and here you can listen to it for free.
The previous podcast has many literary subjects too. Taking from the description post, this recording discusses:
- “how W. H. Auden’s conversion to Christianity affected his poetry”
- “J. R. R. Tolkien’s view of language, and the dangers of a society that debases language”
- “how Flannery O’Connor’s fiction reveals her incarnational view of life”
- “how myth differs from the modern novel, and what is lost when the gods disappear from our stories”
- “how C. S. Lewis was more open-minded than his Victorian atheistic teachers, and how that open-mindedness left room for Lewis to become a Christian”
Crimeficreader has posted notes from the festival interview with that wonderful author, P.D. James. One interesting note, Crimeficreader says: “James believes that imagination is a gift, that it is something you’re born with. When she was a child she knew she wanted to be a writer, but described herself as a ‘late starter’ – a comment that I’m sure will give hope to many.” Perhaps that’s so, but I know that imagination needs regular nurturing to grow and bloom.