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August 03, 2006

The modern country house mystery: The Lighthouse - P. D. James

Posted by Helen Szamuely

The Lighthouse
by P. D. James
London: Faber & Faber, 2005
Hardback, 17.99; Paperback, 12.99

I was a great fan of P. D. James's early novels and that is as damning a faint praise with which to start a review as anyone can think of. It's not that I would disagree with those who put her at the top of the list of modern detective story writers or describe her as the new Queen of Crime (a distinction she seems to share with Ruth Rendell); it's just that the later books have become long and unwieldy with rather cumbersome plots that make little sense. One wonders why it is that the detective story writers of the past managed to produce tightly focused novels time and time again.

Baroness James's latest book, The Lighthouse, is actually better than several of its immediate predecessors: The Murder Room was quite good but Original Sin, A Certain Justice and Death in Holy Orders made many of her admirers despair. The first of these very nearly remained unread by me because it comes into one of the categories of plots I decided not to bother with a little while ago. These are: plots that are rooted in incest or child abuse, plots that are rooted in the French Resistance and plots that are rooted in McCarthyism. As soon as one of these, in my opinion rather lazy, explanations begins to make an appearance in a detective novel, I abandon it, even if it is by a favourite author.

Original Sin is rooted in the French Resistance and very unsatisfactorily, too. The truth is that those events were now so long ago, few people have a really good grasp of the emotions around it. Nor is it likely that vengefulness could last this long. There was another problem with Original Sin - part of its plot (and some episodes) closely resembled one of Nicholas Blake's best known books, End of Chapter. Blake (in reality C. Day Lewis) was a mostly good detective story writer, though too self-indulgent at times.

Nevertheless, I do not think Baroness James did particularly well out of the inevitable comparison. Although, it is clear that she must have remembered aspects of the original novel and there was no plagiarism involved, I was not the only person who went back to End of Chapter and found it an infinitely better novel - better and tighter plotted, more realistic atmosphere, more interesting and acceptable characters. But then, Nicholas Blake was writing about a small publishing house, to him a familiar milieu, and his plot revolves round events to do with the various colonial skirmishes as Britain prepared to divest herself of her empire. These were happening at the time of the book's writing.

After Original Sin, the following two books by P. D. James were so weak that even Sunday newspaper reviewers noticed. In A Certain Justice the main plot gets forgotten until the last couple of chapters and is then resolved in a most unlikely fashion. Furthermore, one of the murders is committed by a psychopath slitting the victim's throat, a repetition of an episode in a previous book. Julian Symons found it slightly sinister that Agatha Christie had so many poisonings in her novels, though poison is the most obvious weapon in domestic murder. What would he have said of two novels, only a few years apart, with throats being slit?

In Death in Holy Orders an unfortunate young man commits suicide by pulling a large amount of earth on top of himself. Try as I might, I could not accept it as a likely proposition.

So we come to Murder Room and the latest novel, The Lighthouse. They are both very traditional, though P. D. James plays cleverly with those supposed rules in order to create a rather more mesmerizing and horrific atmosphere than most stories of the "golden age" did.

Her detective may be a police officer but he is clearly of a different cut from other police officers. In fact, Adam Dalgliesh is a poet. Knowing something of poets and their popularity, I have always found it slightly unlikely that somebody recognizes his name and starts talking about his latest volume in almost every investigation.

Another slightly unlikely aspect of the novels is the social background of the other police officers. Apart from Kate Miskin - an illegitimate child brought up by her grandmother and an escapee from a depressing council estate - everyone else seems to come from rich, upper middle class backgrounds. How different from the home life of our usual coppers on the beat.

All this carping disguises the fact that The Lighthouse is actually a beautifully written page-turner, just as Baroness James's early books were. In fact, many of her favourite themes are present. The book takes place on an island that is deliberately cut off from the mainland (good way of corralling all the suspects) but is slightly macabre. It reminds one of both The Black Tower and The Skull Beneath the Skin. The latter, a Cordelia Gray story, is invoked by the references to some gruesome episode during the war, which, luckily, turns out to be a red herring.

There are the accepted characters: the infuriatingly arrogant old aristocratic lady (in this novel she is also a retired don), the near-psychopathic misfit, the supremely efficient housekeeper and so on.

There is another tradition revived in the last three novels, though whether deliberately or not, is unclear. When a detective falls in love, he is allowed at most three books in which to corrall the beloved if she happens to be an independent and intellectual or artistic lady. Lord Peter Wimsey took three books - meeting, difficulties and final achievement; Roderick Alleyn, I believe, managed it all in just two. Adam Dalgliesh took up the allotted three books but at the end of The Lighthouse he and Emma Lavenham announce their firm intention to get married. Phew!

So what of the plot? Ah yes, the plot. Well, it involves a bunch of very strange people on this cut-off island; a writer who has no ability to react to people merely to use them for his novels, a formerly alcoholic priest, suspended from his duties, a doctor who had once made a wrong decision and his wife, a nurse. All the satisfying paraphernalia of a traditional detective tale with one or two modern twists. To add to the necessary isolation P. D. James does not resort to anything as hackneyed as a snow storm or, indeed, a storm of any kind. No, two people on the island contract the dreaded SARS (there is a good explanation for it) and, hey presto, there is no communication with the mainland at all.

Kate Miskin is given star billing, which worries and exhilarates her in turn and her new colleague, an Anglo-Indian young police officer, Francis Benton-Smith acquits himself well, even managing to strike up some kind of a friendship with the prickly Kate. And the murderer? Well, the murderer is pretty obvious, through a process of elimination if nothing else. But then it is only in books that the least likely person commits the crime.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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