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‘Private Patient’ has air of finality for P.D. James

“The Private Patient,” by P.D. James. Knopf. 2008. 352 pp. $25.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
There’s a perverse coziness in a P.D. James mystery.
With her often remote settings, her limited suspects, a small cast of characters, she follows the traditional “cozy” mystery formula.
Yet, her cold-blooded killers, her details of the murder in process and the lingering consequences of death are decidely unsettling.
James writes novels, not just formulaic mysteries, although with this recent one, “The Private Patient,” there is a formula of sorts as Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith work to discover the killer.
James fans relish each of her books, which can come years apart. Dalgliesh, the policeman-poet, is a brilliant, somewhat tragic figure, always on the job. His satisfaction comes from successfully solving a case.
Kate is an old favorite, too, also completely dedicated to her job, somewhat in love with Dalgliesh, but above all, professional, respectful, grateful for fulfilling work.
Regular readers expect the team’s evening meeting, typically with a glass of wine, to discuss the day’s events, to theorize, to argue. They know the killer will be found, and ó here’s a bit of formula ó that Dalgliesh will face a second murder and most certainly, some sort of dangerous episode.
In “The Private Patient,” we quickly meet the victim, an investigative journalist with a disfiguring scar on her face ó one inflicted by an alcoholic father more than 30 years ago.”Her father gave her one look before stumbling out and hauling himself up to bed. In the seconds in which their eyes met, she thought she saw a confusion of emotions: bafflement, horror and disbelief. … Her father had always found it difficult to meet her eyes; now he hardly ever came near her.”
Rhoda Gradwyn has decided she no longer “has need” of the scar, and chosen George Chandler-Powell to remove it at his private clinic at Cheverell Manor, a grand house in the English countryside. She expects total discretion, as do all of Chandler-Powell’s exclusive patients.
In England, the National Health Service could provide her a surgeon, but she is willing to pay a high price ó higher than she ever imagined ó to have it done privately.
The manor is suitably isolated for murder, and the residents are an eclectic bunch.
Not long after what Chandler-Powell describes as an excellent surgery, Rhoda is strangled in her private bed in her private room in the very private house.
“… She could discern nothing but a white formless shape; the eyes looking into hers might be merciless, but all she could make out was a black slit … With an effort, she raised her head from the pillow and tried to croak out a protest. …
“She knew that this was death, and with the knowledge came an unsought peace, a letting go. And then the strong hand, skinless and inhuman, closed round her throat, forcing her head back against the pillows, and the apparition flung its weight forward. … ”
The suspects include Helena Cresset, whose family used to own the manor. She may want to destroy the doctor and what he’s done to the house. There’s nurse Flavia Holland, who’s in love with the doctor, but finds her affection rejected. There’s Candace Westhall, who warned the doctor not to accept the nosy journalist as a patient. There’s the odd Robin Boyton, a moocher who has befriended Rhoda and is cousin to Candace and her brother, assistant surgeon Marcus Westhall. Marcus feels overshadowed by Chandler-Powell and wants to leave the practice.
And there’s the excellent chef and his timid wife, the ultra-superstitious maid Sharon, the local man, Mog, the gardener, and Lettie Frensham, who helps Helena run the house.
They all assume it was an outsider. The manor grounds include the Cheverell Stones, an ancient circle of 12 rocks similar to Stonehenge. Sharon is happy to repeat the story of the local woman who was burned at the central stone after villagers accused her of being a witch in 1654.
Oh, there are plenty of elements here. And plenty of lies or half-truths. As Dalgliesh and his team question the group, they sense almost every one has something to hide, whether it concerns the murder or not.
James is a master of setting, using weather to establish a mood or describing how furniture makes a room look clinical and cold.
She doesn’t linger describing her characters, but tells much. We know chef Dean Bostock has talent and ambition, and his wife, though an excellent pastry chef, is nervous and timid, holding him back from his dreams.
We never get to know much of Rhoda. Even her mother doesn’t know much about her, and she seems to have few friends.
What’s new in this novel is Dalgliesh’s planned marriage to professor Emma Lavenham. And Kate, who’s recently ended a relationship with her former colleague, Piers Tarrant, is feeling a little lonely, for once.
Dalgliesh hints that their specialized murder squad will soon be disbanded and he has tough choices about his career.
There’s change in the air, and this time not just for those involved ó willingly or not ó in the murder.
What sets James apart is her emphasis on the consequences of murder. Chandler-Powell has effectively lost his private clinic and may even lose regular patients. Everyone in the manor stands to lose a job ó perhaps the manor itself.
A second murder is committed and the detectives almost immediately realize who the suspect in Rhoda’s murder is. The problem ó not a shred of physical evidence. Dalgliesh is frustrated and feeling powerless as the puzzle pieces fall together.
And then a terrifying event happens that leads to the climactic conclusion.
After that, James spends time wrapping up the loose ends. Bonds form in unexpected places. Plans for the future seem promising, and it looks as if Kate and Dalgliesh will find what they are searching for.
“He drove westwards from Bournemouth until, taking the coast road, he found a place where he could stop the car and look out to sea over Poole Harbour. In the last week, his mind and energies had been occupied only with the deaths …, but now there was his future to face. Choices had been placed before him, most of them demanding or interesting, but until now he had given them little thought.”
Is this the end? Is James, who is 88, quietly saying goodbye and telling her fans their favorite detectives can live happily ever after?

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