James, P. D. The Lighthouse.

NY: Knopf, 2005.

The police-procedural mystery series starring Detective Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of the Met has been around since the early 1960s, and Adam has been a senior copper for most of that time — which means that in this book, forty years later, he must be at least eighty years old. Whatever.

Dalgliesh is even permanent ADC to the Commissioner now. James sets each of her books in its present — the special investigations team Dalgliesh heads has cell phones and laptops now — but the man himself seems still to be in his 40s, caught up in a romantic relationship with Dr. Emma Lavenham, literature professor at Cambridge. Perhaps this is only noticeable if you read straight through the series, as I’ve mostly done. Or maybe James’s readers simply ignore the time-slip problem.

This time, the setting is the fictional island of Combe, in the Bristol Channel off Cornwall. The place is privately owned (think Lundy) and now operates under a trust as a private and secure getaway spot for the rich, famous, and/or powerful, where government ministers, foreign diplomats, and big-name writers can find peace and solitude for a few weeks. There are a few visitors on Combe at the moment, plus the permanent staff who are full-time residents, and James follows her usual practice of introducing us to each of them, laying out some of their background and past and present problems, and hinting at their interrelationships, long before the murder takes place. In this case, you’ll know who the victim is going to be well in advance: Nathan Oliver, a leading novelist often mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize, who is a right piece of work. He’s single-minded, selfish, arrogant, demanding, and very much a user. As one of the characters comments, “Genius is not an excuse for bad behavior.” Anyway, lots of people hate him, all for good reason.

When a novelist writes a story featuring a novelist as a key character, there’s always the question of motivation. Everything is grist to Oliver’s mill, but that’s the case with every writer, including James, and it’s something their family and friends learn to be wary of very early in the game. I’m sure that when James has a new experience, or meets an interesting and unusual person, some part of her mind is taking notes. That’s just how it works. Oliver, however, goes a good deal farther than that. He’s even willing to push a fragile recovering alcoholic off the wagon, just to observe what happens, so he can describe the man’s psychological collapse in his next award-winning book.

So Oliver is found hanging by his stretched neck from the top railing of the old lighthouse on Combe and, because of the nature of the island’s visitors, the nervous government sends off Dalgliesh and his two principal assistants, DI Kate Miskin and DS Francis Benton-Smith, by helicopter to solve the case, as quickly and discreetly as possible. This means interviewing the fifteen or so people on the island, then doing it again, and probing and prying, and then thinking about what they find out and discussing it among themselves, and then doing it all over again. Clues turn up, get discounted, or turn out to be less important than hoped. Mistakes are made, even by these experts, though usually by omission. And James will get you to the end of the story eventually, and in a reasonably satisfactory fashion. This isn’t particularly one of her best, though it’s certainly not a bad book. I would put it solidly in the middle of the pack — which, given the general quality of her oeuvre, is a pretty strong recommendation.


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