The Lighthouse by P D James

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The Lighthouse by P D James

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It's better than some recent offerings from P D James but not up the standard of her best work. There's a good plot with a decent ending but you will need to suspend disbelief on a couple of points. A decent if not superb read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2005
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571229182

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Combe Island, off the Cornish coast is a privately-owned retreat offering respite to people in stressful jobs. They are guaranteed privacy and complete security. Some residents are pleasanter than others and when one dies in suspicious circumstances Commander Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate.

It's just over a year since I read the last P D James novel, The Murder Room, and I hoped that there would not be a sequel. I felt that Baroness James, in her eighties, was no longer up to producing good crime fiction. Whilst The Lighthouse isn't up to the standard of her best work - for me that was Devices and Desires - I think that her latest novel is a considerable improvement on either The Murder Room or its immediate predecessor, Death in Holy Orders.

The first Dalgliesh novel was written in 1962 and our hero was already a Chief Inspector. Since then he's been enormously successful and appears to have solved every crime he's encountered. Naturally he's risen through the ranks and is now a Commander at New Scotland Yard. In the real world police officers of such seniority don't fly across the country to investigate a suspicious death which could equally well have been taken on by the local constabulary. To get round this knotty point we are told that there is to be an event of some political significance on the island in a matter of months and it's essential that the death is cleared up with the minimum of fuss. It's a little far-fetched and the reader has to suspend disbelief on this point.

Over the years P D James has become particularly inventive at creating situations where a murderer must be one of a limited number of people. This one is perhaps less-tightly drawn than most. People who are used to living with protection officers about them do not suddenly change to living alone, leaving doors and windows unlocked, simply because they are on an island. Boats do manage to enter harbours without anyone noticing. Once again there needs to be some suspension of disbelief.

Baroness James is good at evoking place. No map of the island is supplied but I had the geographical details in my mind very quickly along with an idea of the bleakness of the terrain. There are some interesting background notes on structures such as the lighthouse and the main house which provide atmosphere and are less indulgent than some similar passages in her recent books. She's also successfully introduced some topics of current interest such experimentation on animals and transmission of virus infections, which give a more up-to-date feel than was apparent in her last two books. She still hasn't really come to terms with mobile phones though.

If she's good with time and place I think the touch is less sure with character. Even after all these years Dalgliesh is still a shadowy, limp lettuce of a man. He's a brain and nothing else. His Inspector, Kate Miskin is supposed to be in love with him but involved with someone else. I had no feeling of sexual chemistry between any of them. There is more sexual content than in most of P D James' books, but nothing that would make your maiden aunt blush. There is obviously violence, given that there's murder, but it's reported after the fact and with only the necessary descriptions.

The characterisation of the suspects is better. I found no problem in establishing in my own mind who was who and they all had sufficient background to save them from being caricatures. A good case could be made out for several of the suspects to be the villain of the piece, but I was taken by surprise by the ending. The plot is superb once you accept that the murderer is one of a limited number of people. It moves on at a sharp pace with some surprising twists.

If I have one reservation about this book it's that Baroness James' writing style doesn't always lend itself to easy reading. Occasionally I had to read a sentence twice to make certain that I had the meaning correctly. Add to this the occasional piece of sloppy proofreading and enjoyment of the book is diminished. I did find myself wondering if there'd be a sequel though!

The book's recommended but might be better borrowed than bought as I doubt that it's one to be reread quickly.

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Paul Railton said:

I loved this book.

Carol Arthur Jones said:

There are so few writers who come near P.D.James' talent with plot and character insight. I appreciate everything she has given us. I let Dorothy Dunnett slip away without expressing my admiration. I want to tell Ms. James she is wonderful. Thank you.