THE LIGHTHOUSE
P.D. James

 


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An Adam Dalglish Mystery
Faber and Faber
October, 2005

Combe Island is a privately owned island off the coast of Cornwell. It is used as an isolated and discreet getaway for the rich and powerful in order for them to recharge their batteries. One of the island's guests, Nathan Oliver, a highly regarded author, is found hanging from the island's lighthouse. Oliver is in his sixties and regarded by some to be past his writing prime. He is also almost universally disliked by those who know him well or have to deal with him.

Enter Commander Adam Dalgleish with his assistant Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, and new team-member Detective Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, a very ambitious Anglo-Indian. Kate isn't comfortable with Benton-Smith on the team. She distrusts him and feels threatened by his presence and education. The investigation is just getting off the ground when Dalgleish is forced onto the sidelines by illness. Kate has to take over and has to learn how to work with Benton-Smith to solve the case.

Author P.D. James has returned to a somewhat traditional formula with THE LIGHTHOUSE: an isolated setting with a limited number of suspects. She is a master of describing detail and setting scenes and this is the strength of the book. Layer upon layer, James builds up a detailed picture of the island and its inhabitants. With each interview a new piece of the puzzle is put in place until the solution lies in front of those who are observant enough to see it.

Those who enjoy the traditional "golden age" mystery of the thirties by authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers may find quite a few similarities between them and THE LIGHTHOUSE.

James is a fine writer. Her descriptions of the island and the buildings are so vivid that you can almost see them. However, there seems to be an element lacking in the book. The victim, a man with no apparent redeeming features, seems to be earmarked for death from the outset. In fact, the only surprise for the reader when he turns up dead is: what took them so long to bump him off? The characters, in particular the detectives, seem to be a series of isolated figures walking through the scenes performing their roles. I found it alienating that James doesn't have any real interaction between them apart from what is necessary for their jobs. There's nothing really there to get a handle on them and their quirks and individual personalities. James is more like an objective observer reporting on their actions and only talking of their feelings in the most subjective way. It's a method of telling a story that doesn't seem to give the characters any real warmth: almost as if she's undertaking an academic exercise.

THE LIGHTHOUSE is a solid read, but I feel P.D. James has written better. The author is now nearly eighty-six years of age which does make one wonder, in creating the character of an ageing writer past his prime, whether she was exploring something which is an issue in her own life.

July 2006
 

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