Book review: The Private Patient

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THE PRIVATE PATIENT by PD James Faber & Faber, 416pp, £18.99

IT IS 46 YEARS SINCE PD JAMES published her first novel. She was then on the verge of what might be considered middle age and had already had a distinguished career in the civil service. There are advantages in coming to the novel comparatively late. The author has acquired a considerable experience of life, stored up material, formed habits of judgment, and earned the right to speak with authority. The fruits are evident in the solidity and intelligence of her books.

The Private Patient is her 18th novel. Like all her books it gives the impression of having been long pondered. Though she is now well on in her eighties, her skill and vitality are not diminished. This novel matches the very high standard she has set herself.

The book cover tells us it is "an Adam Dalgliesh Mystery", and though the murder investigation is handled a little more perfunctorily than in some of her early novels, it is still presented with the scrupulous attention to detail her many readers have come to expect.

Yet to call this a "crime novel" is inadequate, unless you agree with that fine writer Nicolas Freeling that "in prose fiction, crime is the pre-eminent and often predominant theme". Freeling, in the introductory chapter of his very interesting book Criminal Convictions, wrote that "we do not know at what moment the man or woman who commits a crime of violence can be held responsible" – not, you may note, whether he or she is to be held responsible, but at what moment responsibility kicks in. This is an area James has explored; certainly it's a question central to this new novel.

The weakness of most genre crime novels is that they lack moral seriousness. Murder is presented either as an intellectual puzzle – spot whodunit – or as melodrama: exciting, even titillating. Taken to its extreme, this second sort of crime writing staggers into the grotesque absurdity of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels, where the apparent intention is merely to emulate the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers who approached others telling them, "I wants to make your flesh creep."

Making the reader's flesh creep is a reasonable ambition for the crime writer, but also a minor one: for the more flesh-creeping the narrative, the more surely it will lose moral significance.

James's great achievement has been to write the sort of novel that Chandler aimed at – a novel of character and atmosphere with an overtone of violence and fear. She is as interested in the innocents who are caught up in the wake of a murder, and often besmirched by it, as she is in the process of detection. She knows that the dead are not the only victims. She knows, too, that those charged with the duty of detection are themselves bruised and wounded by the work they have to do. She is essentially a humane writer.

The Private Patient is classic James. It is set in a (temporarily) closed community, in this case a clinic established by a distinguished cosmetic surgeon in a Dorset manor-house.

The first victim is an investigative journalist, intelligent, apparently ruthless, admirable in some ways, not very likeable. (The first sentence of the novel tells us she will be murdered; so I am not spoiling the book for any reader.)

It is soon all but certain that the murderer is one of those associated with the clinic, that it is an inside job. It's probable that many readers will happen correctly on the identity of the murderer quite soon. This doesn't matter, because we are invited to be more interested in the why than the whom.

As usual, the setting is described in vivid detail; all the characters are convincing, the atmosphere skilfully evoked. The murders themselves are understandable, though not forgivable. James never invites us to believe that to understand all is to forgive all. She may evoke sympathy for the guilty, as she does here; nevertheless, she condemns.

Yet she relents a little in this book. The world is full of horrors, James wants to say, but it is a beautiful place as well as a terrible one. Love, she tells us, may be "a frail defence" against the cruelty and wickedness that surround us, yet "we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have".

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