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The Baroness Of Murder

Friday, July 7, 2006


The Lighthouse

By P.D. James

Article by Sarah Powell

I have been a long time fan of murder mysteries. I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie, flew through Ellis Peters, dabbled in Colin Dexter, and finally found P.D. James. She was recommended to me by a friend who was enjoying An Unsuitable Job For A Woman when I enquired if in fact P.D. was a female or male author. Not that it matters much; biology usually has little to do with the quality of writing.

The Lighthouse is the most recent book by the Baroness James of Holland Park. It was released 2005, but as a teacher, and with the onset of summer holidays, I have only just been able to devour it (and with a P.D. James, it is almost impossible to do anything else). It was wonderful to revisit with Adam Dalgliesh (pronounced roughly Daa-g-leesh) and his team: Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, and Seargent Francis Benton-Smith. While James stays very far away from soap-opera-like voyeurism into the lives of Dalgliesh, Miskin and Benton-Smith, she allows us to see just enough of their lives outside the investigation to make us care. The occasional characters surrounding the murder are a different matter.

While James is able to create a complex mystery, she never shrouds the clues so thickly that the reader feels cheated; to an acute mind the mystery is essentially “solvable”. There are no trick endings, or false leads that divert the attention so far away from the issue at hand that the reader could not possibly be expected to reasonably figure them out. And although that is one of her greatest strengths, I must admit I rarely try to compete with Dalgliesh – it is much more satisfying to watch as he puzzles it out.


And here is her triumph: Adam Dalgliesh. Many mystery writers choose a oddball recurring detective to draw their readers back, but James has created a character beyond the badge (which to my memory he has never had to wave about). Dalgliesh is not a drunk, he has no asocial behaviours, he has no personal fetishes, he is not overly punctilious; his quirks remain in the region of normal. He is a well-read, quiet but commanding leader, who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the suspects he must investigate. He pulls no punches. I suppose I like him so much because he is a man of integrity, and as a reader you sincerely want him to succeed. James does not need the gimmicks of lesser writers to make her detective engaging because she makes him so authentic.

I don’t want to review the plot of The Lighthouse, which may seem kind of odd for a book review, but it is far more important that you get a sense of the quality of writing that James offers, rather than the details of the murder (and yes, it is always a murder) and the subsequent investigation. And if you wish to read James, you needn’t start with The Lighthouse. Although she has written a few books with a different protagonist, my recommendation would be to start with Dalgliesh, and preferably at the beginning, with Cover Her Face (1962). However, if you can’t find it, and are itching for a great murder mystery, any Dalgliesh will do.


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