Sunday, May 20, 2007


To be honest, a regular whodunit is not my cup of tea. One is thrust into the guessing game very early on, the detective always gets his culprit, and this person is the least likely suspect. As a genre, the detective novel is conventional and predictable and does not often make for a good reading experience. An exception to the rule is P.D. James. Anyone who has read A Time to be in Earnest will testify to the wonderful charm of the long bygone era her work evokes - a world of fine taste, lovely autumns, and summer houses in Scottish coasts. And yet it is grounded in reality with complex characters and circumstances that fit into a contemporary setting. Indeed, it is a testimony to James’ genius that her plots, centered on death ‘n’ detection as they are, turn into fine literary pieces. James, however, has never been too concerned about defending or legitimizing detective stories as a genre and considers them merely as another form of fiction. Words from an earlier interview come to mind:

The mystery is an artificial form, but then all fiction is an artificial form. All fiction is the rearrangement of the author's compulsions, visions, ideas in what the writer hopes is a compelling and logical form.

A major attraction of her work is, of course, Commander Adam Dalgliesh. This charming detective is also no-nonsense and practical, yet there is a quiet, deeper, introspective side to him. James’ creation is also a multifaceted complex personality; while day-Dalgliesh heads the Scotland Yard Special Investigation Squad, night-Dalgliesh is a poet.

In The Lighthouse, Commander Dalgiesh finds himself in an unusual situation. The murder site is remote and inaccessible, forensic help isn’t very forthcoming, and he suddenly takes ill. The scene of the crime, Combe Island, is off the coast of Cornwall, a reclusive private island offering the rich and famous an escape from their high-powered lives. In the midst of this peace and tranquility is found the corpse of renowned author Nathan Oliver. Dalgliesh is summoned almost immediately, and James teams him up with Inspector Kate Miskin and new recruit Benton-Smith. Miskin’s initial professional discomfort with Benton-Smith moves into easy camaraderie; soon, with Dalgliesh falling ill, the mantle is thrust upon these two to solve the case.

Everyone on the island seems to be a suspect, and most alibis are weak at best. There’s Oliver's daughter, Miranda, and her lover Dennis Tremlet, a match of which Oliver didn’t approve. Many of the staff are openly antagonistic toward Oliver. Even the staid and matronly Mrs. Burbridge and Mrs. Plunkett seem to have hidden secrets. To make matters worse, Dalgliesh is in love and very jittery, having just proposed marriage to his lady by mail. As he waits for her reply he has to, with Miskin and Benton-Smith's help, solve the murder.


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

NEVER read PD James. A lapse which I intend to rectify when I go on vacation next.

Which book/s should I start with?


12:01 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

Now that's a tough call....I'd say start off with "original sin" and "shroud for a nightingale" then follow it up with "a certain justice". Next course "Cover her face" and for dessert, her memoirs "a time to be in earnest". It is her best piece yet.

8:53 AM  

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