P.D. James latest novel The Private Patient with the detective Adam Dagliesh and his team solving two murders set in a manor house in Dorset is quite wonderful. She wrote the novel when she was 87 and published it when she was 88 in 2008. James artfully combines the old England and the new England.
As for the old England, the novel ends not just with the two murders solved but with a wedding and three other couples reunited as in a Shakespearean comedy, but one of the couples is a lesbian--that's P.D. James on the new England. Adam Dagliesh is enaged to Emma, an Oxford professor--they have been an egalitarian couple throughout. Emma is close friends to Clara and her lover Annie who had a public celebration of their partnership. It is Clara watching the the 2008 Emma's wedding at the novels's end who quotes Jane Austen's ending of the novel Emma where Austen tartly says about the wedding of her fictional Emma of 1808, 'Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business" yet both fictional Emmas have a loving circle of friends watching their union. Yes, P.D. James combines the best of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Dickens but uses these elements in a tale where the detective hero has two assistants--Kate, a working class woman, and Benton, a half-Indian male of the new England.
James sets this detective tale in a Tudor manor bought by a successful plastic surgeon who uses a wing as an expensive clinic for wealthy private patients. The new England of plastic surgery seems to be able to buy up Old England of Tudor manors, but besides the Tudor manor house is a Neolithic stone circle where a village women was burned as a witch centuries before. The spooky stones attract a half-mad employee at the manor house as Old and New England collide.
The investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn had gone to the clinic to have a face scar removed and is found murdered in her bed. The setting is a 400 year old manor with the hospital staff as well as house staff. There are three sets of investigators in this riveting tale: Gradwyn started investigating the backgrounds of the staff right before her operation; her friend Robin Boynton, cousin to the assistant surgeon Marcus Westhall, is investigating what happened to the Westhall family will which disinherited him; and Dagliesh and his two assistants investigate the murders. The three invesitgations cross cross each other in an elegant plot: who did the murder? who should inherit the English past?
What makes James outstanding is she uses the detective novel to look at the social reality of modern England: Kate is a working class detective claws her way out of a poor neighborhood; Rhoda's mother's set are bitter middle class folk angry at both the elite and new immigrants of color; the Anglo-Indian detective doesn't connect with his mother's India. But also James examines ethical questions and religous questions, as in Dagliesh's interview with the lawyer Phillip Kershaw now in a nursing home. Kershaw was lawyer for the Westfall family who helped make the will but now is declining to death. The lawyer asks the detective, "Would you be willing to break the law if by doing so you could right a wrong or benefit a person you loved?" Then the lawyer near death and the detective near marriage grapple with this question. Even though at that time Dagliesh has a confession to the two murders, he still wants to know the truth about the will but the lawyer says that wanting to know the truth and to understand it is "an arrogance and, perhaps, an impertintence."
James constructs a great scene worthy of Dostoyevsky of the moral arguments between lawyer and detective. James has the lawyer say that with the death of rational religion that "all civilized people have to be ethicists. We must work out our own salvation with diligence based on what we believe." This novel is so wonderful is that is a fascinating murder mystery but also has intelligent, civilized people grappling with how to live ethically in a world where horrible crimes are committed. P.D. James is a wonder and a treasure.
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