An Adam Dalglish Mystery
Faber and Faber
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
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.
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