Authenticity of characters, setting, and motives is a hallmark of P. D. James’s detective novels, in which realism invariably trumps gentility. Even in her first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), a traditional detective story in the Agatha Christie tradition, there is an atypical depth of characterization and development of milieu. James eschews the genteel deaths common in the works of her English forebears. In A Mind to Murder (1963), her second novel, a woman is killed with a chisel in her heart. In Unnatural Causes (1967), a victim is discovered with both hands severed. In Original Sin (1995) a victim is discovered with a stuffed snake crammed into his mouth. In The Lighthouse, one man is strangled and then hanged, and another has his face bashed to a pulp with his nose reduced to splintered bones.
Such departures from the old norms notwithstanding, much is familiar about The Lighthouse, which abounds with echoes not only of previous James mystery novels but also of her indebtedness to predecessors in the genre. Again as in the works of Christie and others appear such motifs as an isolated island setting, a gathering of apparent strangers, old grievances generating vengeance, people trying to escape or overcome past transgressions, and a narrative developed mainly by way of interviews interspersed with consultations among the sleuths. Neither this book nor James’s previous ones, however, are mere exercises in armchair detection, for both Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, Adam Dalgliesh’s young assistants, engage in dangerous physical feats as they pursue clues and ultimately corner their prey.
The many similarities that evoke tradition do not demean James’s accomplishments in The Lighthouse, her seventh Adam Dalgliesh mystery, for throughout her career she has tested the parameters of the genre while adhering to its basic tenets. Consider, for instance, Dalgliesh, a career man who has risen through the ranks of the Metropolitan police force to the higher reaches of Scotland Yard. In his personal life he evolves from grieving widower through several liaisons to the threshold of marriage to Emma Lavenham, a university professor he met in Death in Holy Orders (2001). Poet and lover, this policeman is, above all, a sensitive human being. At a key point in The Lighthouse, he is laid low by the severe acute respiratory syndrome(SARS) virusJames’s novels often reflect current events, an aspect of her realismand cedes much of his responsibilities to his assistants, though hewhile in sickbedhas the crime-solving epiphany. This illness (like the life-threatening one he is suffering when 1986’s A Taste for Death begins) enriches the realism, focusing as it does on Dalgliesh’s fallibility.
Similarly, James devotes a dozen pages to personal information about Miskin and Benton-Smith, matter with no direct bearing on the investigation except to suggest how their experiences inform their work. Though her sleuths (these three and Cordelia Gray elsewhere) may arrive on a crime scene like avenging deities sent by society’s protective spirits, they are very different from the genre’s more prevalent two-dimensional, eccentric sleuths. Far from being omniscient or intuitive, these detectives solve crimes almost entirely by legwork and a process of logical deduction from a plethora of clues, most of which are apparent to the careful reader.
Though London-based, Dalgliesh does most of his work in other places, for James often turns to the sea for her settings, either an isolated coastal venue or, in the present instance, privately owned Combe Island off southern England. Available to government officials and people of privilege in industry, the arts, and science as a secure retreat for rest and rejuvenation, the island has only a few permanent residents, most of whom are there to serve its visitors. Owned for centuries by the Holcombes, since 1930 a charitable trust has run it, though one remaining family member, Emily Holcombe, now eighty years old, lives there, tended for the past fifteen years by her manservant Roughthouse.
Others who more or less permanently reside on Combe are Rupert Maycroft, a former solicitor who runs the island on behalf of the trust; the resident physician, Dr. Guy Staveley, who abandoned his London practice after he made a wrong diagnosis that caused a child’s...
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