In The Private Patient (Knopf  2008,  $25.95) P.D. James, who began her celebrated and prolific mystery writing career in her forties, has delivered an excellent Gothic tangle of a mystery. Her protagonist, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn, has  lived throughout her life and career with a brutally disfiguring facial scar. Shortly after her 47th birthday, she checks into an exclusive private clinic, Cheverell Manor, in Dorset, England, to have the scar removed. As she drowses in her hospital room, recuperating from surgery, she is murdered. It is up to Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team to discover why.

Nearly everything about this mystery is perplexing. Rhoda had guarded her personal privacy intensely, leaving few clues to explain why she had decided to remove the scar after so long, or why she had chosen to have her surgery in a secluded private hospital far from her London home. But as Dalgliesh and his team question the manor’s doctors and staff, a confused tangle of interrelationships, secrets and old conflicts emerges.

Guarded, almost reclusive in her personal life, Rhoda Gradwyn’s incisive, confrontational brand of journalism has made her very few friends and a seemingly endless list of enemies. Dalgliesh and his team must also puzzle over the possibility that she chose Cheverell Manor to discover and publish its secrets as well as make peace with her own. A ghost story, a betrayal, a disputed will and the faded glory of the manor add spooky Gothic overtones to the tale.

James sketches in brief details of the Dalgliesh team, acquainting first-time readers and deftly bringing longtime fans up to speed. Dalgliesh and his two junior detectives are easy to like; James also offsets the Gothic shivers of the mystery itself with humanizing details, about Dalgliesh’s impending marriage and the two junior investigators’ romantic foibles. The added levity is just enough, without jarring the pacing of the mystery’s greater puzzle. Other scenes cast Dalgliesh as less of a hard-edged metropolitan police investigator, and more in the role of a tweedy Oxford don: For example, on the case in Dorset, the team wraps up each day by rehashing the case over a fireside bottle of wine.

James’ prose is both detailed and atmospheric. Although Gradwyn’s motives for removing the scar remain largely unexplained, flashback scenes of Rhoda Gradwyn’s childhood abuse are both heart-wrenching and possessed of firm dignity.

At times, however, that very evocative spareness does not serve the particulars of the mystery at hand. It’s never clear why Rhoda Gradwyn has decided to have surgery, or why she’s chosen to do so at Cheverell Manor. The tangle of secrets binding the Manor staff are unclear, and after each secret and betrayal is revealed and examined, it is either picked over and then forgotten or simply rushed past. One doctor’s furtive homosexual affair, for example, appears to exist to fuel the air of tension and mystery for a few chapters, with no core tie to the story’s main arc. This unevenness threatens to tilt into melodrama the narrative murder, family secrets and betrayal, lending at times a distinctly soapy feel.

Nonetheless, The Private Patient soars overall on James’ masterful prose and is a terrific beach read, especially for fans of the distinctly British mystery. James (seen below talking to Charlie Rose)  is sure to please fans of her other Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, and should entice new fans to read further.

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  • Billie Brown May 27, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Loved the book, love the review!