The Private Patient: Reviews

A round-up of reviews for P. D. James's 2008 novel, The Private Patient.

Marcel Berlins in The Times:

‘P.D. James is 88. Commander Adam Dalgliesh must be well into his eighties; he was already a Chief Inspector when first encountered in the pages of Cover Her Face, James's first novel. It is possible that The Private Patient will be the last collaboration between Baroness James of Holland Park, usually accorded the even grander title of Queen of Crime, and the most misspelt senior policeman in crime fiction.

But I wouldn't bet on this being the end of the wonderful partnership. Dalgliesh has managed, through being fictional, the luxury of being able to retard the ageing process. James, living in real time, appears to have lost none of her acuity, subtlety and inventiveness. Certainly The Private Patient shows no signs of author fatigue. There is just one possible indication - which I will not reveal for fear of spoiling your enjoyment - that this fourteenth appearance by the Scotland Yard sage is destined to be his swansong. But the formula is no different from most in the Dalgliesh series; the quality is averagely excellent James, although not among her best three or four.

It opens with a magnificently Jamesian sentence. “On November 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon ...” She's asking the surgeon - George Chandler-Powell, the most fashionable in his field - to remove a prominent and ugly facial scar that her father had drunkenly inflicted on her when she was a child. But why - the first mystery - had she waited so long to want to rid herself of the disfigurement? “Because I no longer have need of it” is all she would say.

Her murder takes place in a gloomy historic manor house in Dorset (slightly less sinister than James's usual scenes of homicide, although there are haunted stones near by), which the surgeon has converted into an expensive private clinic where his clients can be operated on and recover. Chandler-Powell was proud and satisfied with the work he'd performed on Rhoda Gradwyn's face. It was unfortunate - and bad for business - that she was strangled in her bed that very night.

Dalgliesh's job in charge of a special squad at Scotland Yard requires him to investigate serious crimes so sensitive that they cannot be handled by the local police force. 10 Downing Street has insisted that this was such a case. As he has been for many years, Dalgliesh is assisted by Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, the spiky working-class girl from a deprived, dysfunctional family, and the more recent addition to the unit, the ambitious Anglo-Indian Detective Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith.

All the usual James hallmarks are present: an unpleasant victim, a further death in a place of worship, references to the work of Jane Austen, discussions on the nature of good and evil, guilt and innocence; and a strange assortment of suspects, none of whom seems to have a motive.

Rhoda Gradwyn had been a famous investigative journalist, much hated by many victims of her exposés; but what avenger would have known of her movements, or been able to penetrate such an isolated house? Or was her death part of a plan to ruin Chandler-Powell's medical practice and reputation? Various members of the domestic and medical staff come under the scrutiny of Dalgliesh's team, as does a troublesome guest claiming close ties with the dead woman. A subsequent killing fails to add much light.

Adam Dalgliesh (named after one of James's teachers) has been one of crime fiction's most interesting and original creations. No copper has been more learned, more intellectual or more sensitive; no other has been a published poet (though James has made sure that readers have not, with one short exception, been offered examples of his poetic talent). In addition to his mental prowess, James gave him good looks and wealth (by way of an aunt's legacy).

That wasn't all. By the time of his appearance in Cover My Face, Dalgliesh had already been touched by tragedy. His wife had died in childbirth, his baby son soon thereafter. James once said that she had made him a widower so as not to have to worry about his love life.

It was also a brilliant ploy, clothing him with the aura of sadness and occasional anguish that made him so attractive to women readers. But even grief-stricken solitude has its limits, and James has from time to time granted him relationships and even a near-marriage. Four books ago, in Death in Holy Orders, he met the Cambridge don Emma Lavenham, and in The Private Patient the phone call ordering him to go to Cheverell Manor interrupts him in the act of formally asking Emma's father for her hand in marriage.

What has set James apart from every other woman writer of crime fiction is her style - unhurried, elegant, mannered and a touch verbose; her characters tend to speak correct English. She is the most literary of crime writers - men and women - and the one of whom it is most often asked: “Why has she never been listed for the Booker?”.

It is sometimes said against her that her plots and solutions are not always realistic and convincing - a criticism that can be made about virtually every writer in the crime field. It comes with the territory. In James's case it is a small criticism to make in the context of her many grand virtues, in particular her mastery of atmospheric setting (she has always claimed that she decides on the setting first, then characters, then plot) - and, of course, her creation of one of the great police detectives in the history of crime fiction.



'Although she tackles contemporary social issues with relish, James will still use old-fashioned narrative devices dating back to the golden age of crime fiction. That’s because they still work.' Calgary Herald

'Her skill and vitality are not diminished ... The Private Patient is classic James.' Scotsman

‘I loved the experience of reading The Private Patient. And the reason is that James's writing is simply superb. Intense detail illuminates rather than bores, and helps make the novel's setting a constantly atmospheric one. The richness of the whole thing is something I was delighted to immerse myself in every time I picked the book up again. She (like Rendell as Vine) writes like no other crime writer, takes a sumptuous care over the business like no peer of hers seems to do. Everything is detailed, everything is fully realised. She constructs the starting points for her plots with a kind of love: the confluence of events, the things which bring these eclectic people to this isolated setting, this macrocosm of a locked-room mystery, be it set in a lighthouse, private clinic, nursing college or religious retreat. Her build-ups are always fascinating, how she brings everything together, sets up the suspects, motives, relationships, histories. In fact, they're almost my favourite part of the P. D. James experience!’

'This is a book about the way we live now ... James brings a stinging clarity to the complicated goings-on in the Dorset countryside.' Sunday Times

'Elegantly phrased, plot-driven, multi-layered and laced with menace.' Observer

'P. D. James - in the eyes of many admirers the world’s finest living crime novelist.' Windsor Star



‘When an investigative journalist checks in for plastic surgery to a private clinic in Dorset, you know she is going to end up with more than a nip and tuck ...

With a more sadistic novelist, one would look forward gleefully to her demise. What is one investigative journalist more or less? But compassion is a P. D. James hallmark. Even as she introduces her murder victim, Rhoda, one warms to her as a human being. The childhood scar she wants removed - remarking, enigmatically, that she no longer has any need of it - is an outward manifestation of an inner turbulence which James sketches with masterly skill.

We feel sorry, as we should do, when Rhoda is found murdered, strangled in her bed. Who hated her enough to kill her? As the plot thickens, even the people working at the clinic with no previous connection to Rhoda - apparently - turn out to be bearers of ancient grudges.

There are family feuds, disputed wills, women who have killed before, spurned lovers, the whole glorious nonsense of the traditional English whodunit, in the hands of a master. Time of death? Send for the forensic pathologist! Ready for another corpse? Look in that rusty freezer! You didn't think it was going to have frozen fish fingers in it, did you? As Commander Adam Dalgleish summons everyone to the library - where else? - you feel a little frisson of pure pleasure.

The old-fashioned plot is as cosy and familiar as a log fire in winter. P. D. James is knocking 90, and whoever takes up the baton of crime fiction when she is gone will certainly not set scenes in libraries. Nor are they likely to match the wry elegance of her descriptions. "A profusion of dark beams on the façade suggested that the architect had intended mock Tudor, but had been seduced by hubris to add a central cupola and Palladian front door."

It will seem like double-Dutch to readers used to tales of serial killers in tower blocks in Walthamstow. But we should treasure James while we have her. In terms of plotting, The Private Patient is only moderately gripping. But the characterisation, the accretion of detail, the overarching humanity is as impressive as ever.

As Dalgleish heads altar-wards with his fiancée, Emma, James fashions an ending which, in its emotional complexity, completely transcends the bog-standard denouement of a whodunit. It is beautifully done.’ Daily Telegraph