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Review: The Lighthouse by P.D. James

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When asked why she chose to write mystery novels, P.D. James once responded that as a child she considered the tale of Humpty Dumpty with a suspicious mind. “Did he fall, or was he pushed?”

Her latest novel The Lighthouse rather neatly tracks that childhood question. Acclaimed novelist Nathan Oliver has returned to Combe Island, a remote island off the Cornish coast. Now an exclusive retreat where business tycoons, politicians and other influential figures are able to find a measure of peace and quiet, the island has a long and bloody history. Oliver happens to have the rare distinction of having been born on the island; pursuant to the terms of the charitable trust that now operates the retreat, his accident of birth means that he is entitled to visit the island whenever he wishes.

A vastly disagreeable man, Oliver has ongoing feuds with other of the island’s temporary residents (including a noted, if controversial scientist, as well as Oliver’s own daughter). Which means that when Oliver’s body is discovered hanging from the Island’s lighthouse, one has to ask: did he commit suicide, or was he pushed?

Enter Adam Dalgliesh, the intrepid investigator who has starred in many of her mysterious tales. Dispatched through political channels to take charge of the investigation in hopes of stemming unwanted publicity (as the island had been intended as a sanctuary for those participating in an upcoming political summit). Together with his trusty subordinates, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, Dalgliesh arrives on the island to uncover the truth behind Oliver’s death.

James’ novel features deft characterizations and a subtle establishment of both plot and pacing. The island’s other occupants each have reason to wish Oliver dead. But it is in the intricate layering of detail – from a police record, a tape from Christopher Marlowe, or a telltale cough – that again proves James’ stature as the “Grand Dame” of detective fiction. What is more, in the artful manner in which she elicits the humanity of her character, James demonstrates that absurdity of striving to maintain the ghetto-like boundaries of what is often characterized as “genre fiction.” While the game is afoot and murder is the mystery, it also serves as a backdrop for an exploration of the diverse nature of the various characters, be they investigator or suspect. And it is in that humanity that James does her best work. Recommended.

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About Bill Wallo

  • I’ll have to look out for that book.

  • Mike Farman

    Adam Dalgleish has always seemed to me a bloodless character, Lord Peter Wimsey in modern dress. His relationships with women are so restrained and circumspect that they are both boring and unbelievable. Perhaps Ms. James is delberately painting him this way to contrast with her other characters enmeshed in the plot, many of whom are much more lifelike in their often obnoxious selfishness. She is most at home with the stiff upper and professional classes of course, but this novel, not one of her most compelling, does contain a charming waif in Millie, who is nicely drawn. The island too, is a character in the novel which is vividly portrayed. The denouement is contrived and murderer turns out to be someone far less interesting in his/her motivation than is usual with James.