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P.D. James and the case of the mysterious baroness.

By 12.30.08

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The Private Patient, by P.D. James
(Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95)

It's hard to think of or refer to English mystery novelist P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy if you must know) as Baroness James of Holland Park. Not just because Americans are bad with titles, though we certainly are, but because a kind of Gresham's Law now applies to titles in Old Blighty, where even superannuated rockers have Sir tacked on the front of their names.

Try thinking of Sir Mick (Jagger), Sir Elton (John), or Sir Paul (McCartney) while keeping a straight face. So even though Mrs. James richly deserves to be honored, the worth of English titles has been greatly diminished by the trifling, sometimes outrageous personages who now carry them. (Good thing Sid Vicious died young, or the remaining civilized Brits would likely have had to choke down Sir Sid.) So, with apologies, I'll stick to the civilian form of her name.

(By the way, my English friends tell me it was the Labour Party that ginned up the disreputable practice of honoring rockers and other idlers. We might have known that when tradition and good sense are mocked, lefties are at the bottom of it. But what can you expect from a bunch that can't even spell "labor"?)

Conservative TAS readers with a taste for the traditional mystery form will almost certainly like Mrs. James latest offering, The Private Patient, and perhaps any of Mrs. James's previous 18 mystery novels, which began in 1962 with Cover Her Face.

The 88-year-old Mrs. James hasn't lost a step. In Patient, James's 20th book and 14th Adam Dalgliesh novel, readers will encounter her usual complex story, rich with finely drawn characters and many credible suspects, some of whom relate to each other in complex ways. Mrs. James's work departs from mystery pioneers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in that her characters are believable and modern.

Mrs. Christie's stories could be entertaining, and some watchable movies and TV series have been made of her work, especially those involving Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. But her characters are mostly aristocratic and serving class oddments, presented not to be believed, but only to advance fanciful plots. Mrs. James's characters are real, and engage a real world.

The only clue for the reader to Mrs. James's age is her writing style, only slightly less ornate than that of Dickens but a lot less sentimental. And more precise. Her characters wrestle with the age-old problems of love and lust and fear and aging and loyalty and regret and greed and the place of money and work in our lives. Clearly the elderly and personally conservative James regrets what has been lost through the sorry cultural tendencies of the last few decades. (She was Church of England when that outfit was a vital religion, not the Feiffer cartoon is has become.) But her stories aren't wistful paeans to the good-old-days. She is a keen observer and chronicler of the contemporary scene.

In Patient the murder victim is 47-year-old Rhoda Gradwyn, a tabloid investigative journalist who has uncovered and written about a great deal in her career that various folks would have liked to have kept under wraps. She checks into a remote and pricey clinic on an old estate in Dorset to have a disfiguring facial scar she has had since childhood removed. She dies, as we learn on the first page of the book that she will, shortly after successful surgery. Before her death, on page 86, we've already gotten a good look at the staff of the clinic, several of whom had access and opportunity and perhaps even a motive to do Rhoda in.

Comes now Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, Mrs. James's poet-detective, and his team of Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith. They begin parsing incidents and people in order to resolve yet another complicated case. These officers are well known to Mrs. James's regular readers, and their own personal stories are advanced in succeeding novels. But unlike most crime novels, where the detective or detectives are in almost every scene, they take up only about a quarter of so of the space in the James stories. The rest is reserved for suspects and victim and other crucial players, all of whom we know thoroughly before the killer is uncovered and some kind of order is restored, as must always happen in a good detective story.

In England less fuss is made than elsewhere about the distinction between mystery writers and writers of, for lack of a better expression, literary fiction. Mrs. James is thought of there as a writer, and one of the country's best. She's not pigeon-holed as just a genre content-provider, which, with her elegant prose, her deft handling of character and place, and her intelligent themes and sure-handed presentation of current social issues, she has never been. The woman, who circumstances obliged to leave school at 16, has received numerous honorary university degrees in recognition of her literary work.

There's much unbearable lightness in the mystery section of your local book store. But none contributed there by P.D. James. Readers will come away from P.D. James's work with more feel for the human condition, and having had a more satisfying look at Vanity Fair as a going concern, than from that of any number of angst-ridden exercises in naval-gazing the current "literary" crowd churns out these days.

In the forties, critic and curmudgeon Edmund Wilson wrote two essays deriding detective fiction and the people who read it. The title of the second made his point, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" A very good question if at the end of the detective story the reader has only learned the name of the murderer. (I read Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd years ago, and I don't remember who did it.)

Readers will get ever so much more from Mrs. James's finely crafted stories. Her novels repay the intelligent reader in the way good fiction always has. If you agree with me about Patient, there's a considerable backlist of Mrs. James's novels, most of which are still in print. Like most good writers, her stories are timeless. So her novels from the sixties and seventies are just as readable today as more recent numbers.

I for one pray we haven't heard the last from Adam Dalgliesh and from P.D. James in The Private Patient.


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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.