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James, P D - 'The Private Patient'
Hardback: 416 pages (Aug. 2008) Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571242448

I received proofs of the this, the new P D James, and the new Barbara Vine THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT, within days of one another, and decided it would be fun to read the two new novels by the two leading females of the British crime genre back-to-back, and seeing which I preferred. The answer, I'm afraid, is that I preferred neither. Both are disappointing efforts in their own way: the writing of both is exceptional, but both fall down at the hurdle of being a satisfying crime novel. As for the Vine, the only thing shocking about the new novel from a writer normally relied on for her shocks, is that there are none! And as for this P D James, she can normally be relied upon to provide a satisfying and surprising solution to her richly detailed mysteries, but here she just doesn't bother.

That is the largest problem with THE PRIVATE PATIENT. There are others. A good example is the almost messianic way she treats Dalgliesh (especially in reference to one silly weepy scene with subordinate Miskin), which is completely ridiculous almost from the start. Her characters just do not come across as real people when she starts giving them such devotions. I am always prepared to suspend a little belief with James (whose plummy characters have always come from the 60s unless they are lower on the class ladder, in which case they are generally hard-working, sloppy-talking stalwarts), but things here get a little silly: the characters talk with an eloquence not even found in some Booker novels, and their speech exhibits a clarity of thought that real human beings just do not spontaneously have, in my experience. Another criticism, which stems from the same root as the previous problem, is her silly political asides. A recent interview in some British newspaper revealed James to have some rather… disappointing, beliefs, and she takes the time to air them here occasionally, in brief splutters of wrinkly condescension. It's not exactly a massive problem, but it's just not necessary, adds nothing, and just kept jerking me out of the story. Which, in all other respects, was absolutely, completely engaging and embroiling. The only other disappointing aspect was the fact that Rhoda Gradwyn seemed such an intensely interesting character, but I didn't really felt like we got under her skin at all, which was a shame. She remained a little too much of an enigma, when she was clearly the most interesting character in the book (I remember a similar problem cropping up in THE LIGHTHOUSE, in fact.)

It says something that even though there were (and are) things about James' writing that I find intensely annoying, I loved the experience of reading THE PRIVATE PATIENT. And the reason is that James's writing is simply superb. Intense detail illuminates rather than bores, and helps make the novel's setting a constantly atmospheric one. The richness of the whole thing is something I was delighted to immerse myself in every time I picked the book up again. She (like Rendell as Vine) writes like no other crime writer, takes a sumptuous care over the business like no peer of hers seems to do. Everything is detailed, everything is fully realised. She constructs the starting points for her plots with a kind of love: the confluence of events, the things which bring these eclectic people to this isolated setting, this macrocosm of a locked-room mystery, be it set in a lighthouse, private clinic, nursing college or religious retreat. Her build-ups are always fascinating, how she brings everything together, sets up the suspects, motives, relationships, histories. In fact, they're almost my favourite part of the P D James experience!

So, my disappointments aside, I mostly enjoyed the experience, and so probably will all James fans. The solution is a damp affair, but the rest is not. It's a good James novel, just not a great one. Which is a much better state of affairs than none at all.

Fiona Walker, England
August 2008

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 31/08/2008 09:25