4.11.12

P. D. James's The Private Patient


The Times calls P. D. James the “prolific and cerebral grand dame of British crime” (Berlins 2008). An acknowledged master of the detective novel, she has won two Silver Daggers, the Cartier Diamond Dagger, and the Grand Master awards. Although she is 92 years old, she published an impressive work of literary criticism – Talking About Detective Fiction – three years ago. Like Agatha Christie, she has created two distinct series; one featuring a male detective (Adam Dalgliesh), the other a female (Cordelia Gray). James has written 14 Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, all of them bestsellers. Dalgleish begins as a Scotland Yard inspector and rises to the rank of commander.

In The Private Patient, investigative reporter Rhoda Gradwyn undergoes plastic surgery to remove an old facial scar. The surgery is performed at an elite country manor clinic in the Dorset countryside. Gradwyn is strangled to death the night after the operation. Shortly after the crime, another murder is committed at the manor. The plot is intricate, intriguing, and gripping.

This novel will remind you of the best classic mysteries. Stasio claims that “the traditional comforts of the British country house mystery — puzzling plot, attractive setting, brainy detective, interesting characters — spill from P. D. James’s latest novel, The Private Patient, like harvest bounty from a cornucopia.” James explains her attraction to this time-honoured genre:
I didn’t foresee a writing career primarily as a crime novelist. However, as I continued with the genre I became increasingly fascinated with its possibilities, and in particular how one could use what some might see as an outworn form to produce a contemporary novel which would provide excitement and mystery and yet say something true about contemporary men and women under the trauma of a police investigation for murder.
Many novelists sacrifice either plot or character; James does neither. As I pointed out in my post on A Mind to Murder, her characters have a psychological richness and complexity that make them truly memorable.

James frequently writes about ordinary people driven by complex psychological motives to kill. (DuBose 2000, 357). She uses the cozy subgenre and its signature enclosed setting to fuel the tensions that lead to murder. As James herself reminds us,
the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence. (2009, 135-36)
The country manor clinic with its haunting historical background provides the perfect backdrop for her crime novel. Maslin writes that “Ms. James sets her mystery on comfortably familiar terrain and makes the most of its atmospherics.” Medical settings and communities, particularly small, self-contained ones, are prominent in her novels.

Although James’s novels are more complex and nuanced than those of her Golden Age predecessors, her work has an old-world aura of reassuring order about it. Commander Adam Dalgleish is the moral compass of her novels, a wise, comforting father-figure. DuBose claims that James “treasures order and control in her books and in her life. In her many interviews over the years, the words ‘structure,’ ‘control,’ and ‘order’ are repeated like mantras” (2000, 341).

Yet what distinguishes The Private Patient as a decidedly modern mystery is James’s focus on the deviant and complex psyche. Stephen Knight points out that James “considers the psychological sources of crime and the aberrant desires of both suspects and victims; the two-dimensional parsimony of character on which Christie’s plots depended is replaced with a less simply resolved sense of human complexity” (2004, 136-37). The Private Patient is a skilful novel, combining the best of classic and modern mystery techniques.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

James, P. D. The Private Patient. 2008. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2009.

------. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.