James, P. D. The Private Patient.

NY: Knopf, 2008.

A couple of years after writing this book, the author let it be known that it was officially the final installment in the long-running series featuring Detective Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, who for the past several volumes has been running the Special Investigations Squad. And it’s not a bad story to be going out with, either.

The SIS supposedly takes on those cases that involve VIPs or which are otherwise politically sensitive, but Adam treats all possible suspects alike, no matter high up in the social pecking order they might be. Still, he’s puzzled when he and DI Kate Miskin and DS Benton-Smith are sent off to a manor house in Dorset that has been converted to a private hospital with its own operating theatre.

As is usually the case with James, we get a good deal of background and scene-setting first. (Dalgliesh isn’t even heard of until a quarter of the way into the book.) The murder victim, we are told in the opening paragraph, is a middle-aged investigative journalist named Rhoda Gradwyn — and who is, we shall discover, a very private person. Since adolescence, she has carried a deep facial scar (the gift of a drunken father with a broken bottle) which she has finally decided to have repaired, so she consults with Mr. George Chandler-Powell, a noted plastic surgeon (surgeons in Britain are never “Doctor”), who sees patients both in London and at his Dorset place, Cheverell Manor, since they often prefer privacy while recovering. So Miss Gradwyn travels there, the operation is a success, and then she’s murdered in her room during the night.

A murder mystery is always easier to take in when there’s a limited universe of suspects — unlike real life in most murder cases — and that’s the case here. There’s Chandler-Powell, the surgeon, himself, and his colleague and assistant, Marcus Westhall, who has some personal secrets. There’s Marcus’s sister, Candace, who shares a cottage with him and helps out generally. (They had their ailing father to look after until he died and left them wealthy, so they may not be around much longer.) There’s Flavia Holland, the OR nurse (“theatre sister”) at the manor, who also is part of a secret. There’s Helena Cressett, whose family owned the manor for four centuries until her father met with financial disaster and had to sell the place. (Helena is back in residence now as housekeeper and general administrator and has become indispensable to Chandler-Powell.) Helena’s old governess, Mrs. Frensham, looks after the accounts. And there’s Dean Bostock, a gifted chef, who handles anything to do with food, assisted by his painfully shy young wife, Kim. There’s Sharon Bateman, a young woman with a mysterious past who helps out in the kitchen and such. And there’s Mogworthy, an almost clichéd gardener and groundskeeper and thorough countryman (though he actually moved out from London for the job).

The last major player is Robin Boynton, an old friend of Miss Gradwyn’s (though he’s twenty years younger) and first cousin of the Westhalls, who comes up from London periodically to stay in one of the vacant cottages on the estate. He was left out of his uncle’s will and he’s trying to make Marcus and Candace feel guilty enough to do The Right Thing.

James develops each of the players in considerable depth, as she always does, and by the time the murder actually occurs and the police arrive, you’ll be considering the pros and cons of the collection of suspects yourself. But be patient, because the violence isn’t over with. Adam and his crew follow their usual practice of interviewing and re-interviewing everyone, following the clues off to other parts of the country, and sitting down with a bottle of wine each evening to consider and discuss what they’ve learned. Things don’t really seem to be coming together, though — until suddenly they do. And, as is sometimes the case, though they eventually discover whodunit, not all the questions are answered. There might even be an alternate solution, which Dalgliesh pokes into very carefully, and which points out the difference between “law” and “justice.” The writing is generally superior (though there are some regrettably contrived expository bits in setting up the story), the plotting is complexly balanced, the characterizations are multi-dimensional, and whole experience is entirely satisfactory.

Moreover, the book ends with a background event that James’s readers have been anticipating for several years now, so she has indeed wrapped up the series in an equally satisfactory way. I expect I’ll wait a decade or so, until the details have begun to fade, and then I’ll go back and read through the fourteen novels again.

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Published in: on 23 February 2014 at 8:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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