The Private Patient
In the great crime story tradition of Agatha Christie, P. D. James’s The Private Patient isolates a toxic mix of characters at a four-hundred-year-old manor house haunted by a mini-Stonehenge-like stone circle in an adjoining meadow. There a young girl was once sacrificed and burned alive. James kills off one character, then another, and provides credible-seeming alibis for most of the possible miscreants. The plot threading through the novel is ingenious and varied, involving anger over inheritances possibly tainted by fraud, sexual jealousy, long-distant but unresolved childhood violence, mysterious motives, and a looming sense of impending violence. As in the best of English detective fiction, setting acts as character, supplying motive and mood rather than simply backdrop scenery.
Cheverell Manor, named after the stone circle most of the characters visit almost obsessively throughout, has acquired a new identity as a cosmetic surgery clinic for the wealthy, a private great house in rural Dorset where Mr. George Chandler-Powell (British surgeons use Mr. rather than Dr.) can reinstate lost youthful appearances and repair the damage of accidents in complete privacy, while patients enjoy gourmet food prepared by Kim and Dean Bostock, chefs trained in London. Chandler-Powell has himself aspired to a new identity, finding solace in the Great Hall of the Manor as he escapes the pressures of his busy Harley Street London second practice. He plays country squire on his days off, buoyed by workers and servants, all deferential to his brilliance and his deserved reputation.
For all the apparent calm in this elegant setting, however, Chandler-Powell has surrounded himself with an unstable mix of helpers. His chief surgeon, Marcus Westhall, idolizes his mentor but also feels stifled; he has no future at Cheverell Manor and is pursuing more consequential work in Africa, where surgery saves lives rather than appearances. Marcus’s sister Candace, a resident of Stone Cottage on the Manor premises, is marking time while the siblings await the resolution of probate in their father’s inheritance. Candace cannot return to university teachingher position has been dumbed-down by a heedless government bureaucracyand she is emotionally worn after nursing her emotionally brutal father for two years as he lay dying in Stone Cottage. Chandler-Powell’s head of nursing, Flavia Holland, is also his mistress, but, dissatisfied with her status, she pushes the divorced surgeon to marry her. Robin Boyton, a black sheep in the Westhall family, makes return visits to his cousins Marcus and Candace, not out of love but in hopes of passive-aggressively gaining a financial settlement. Sharon Bateman, a nondescript servant girl working under an assumed name, horrifically murdered her sister at age twelve. Helena Haverland, a member of the Cressett family that originally owned Cheverell Manor, seems settled in her work as an administrator of the complex medical and residence operations, but the reasons for her satisfaction with this role are not readily apparent. Even the Bostocks, Kim and Dean, hopeful young married chefs from London, might well move on: He misses big-time cooking in London, and she wants a baby.
Rhoda Gradwyn’s fateful decision to have Chandler-Powell repair her disfigured cheek at the Manor clinicshe asserts she no longer “needs” the scar, the result of a brutal swipe with a bottle by her drunken fathersets off an unpredictable cascade of events. It shakes the unstable social structure of the Manor’s permanent staff and leads to wholesale changes in their lives. Boyton learns of Gradwyn’s surgical intentions and turns up at the Manor in pursuit of his interests. Dalgliesh and Kate...
(The entire section is 1522 words.)