In James’s stellar fourteenth Adam Dalgliesh mystery, the charismatic police commander knows the case of Rhoda Gradwyn, a 47-year-old journalist murdered soon after undergoing the removal of an old disfiguring scar at a private plastic surgery clinic in Dorset, may be his last. Dalgliesh probes the convoluted tangle of motives and hidden desires that swirl around the clinic, Cheverell Manor, and its grimly fascinating suspects in the death of Gradwyn, herself a stalker of minds driven by her lifelong passion for rooting out the truth people would prefer left unknown and then selling it for money.
The Private Patient isn’t bad—I think it’d be impossible for P. D. James to write a bad novel—but it isn’t very gripping. It’s written in her usual style, very descriptive of setting, even down to the retirement home accomodations of an obscure family solicitor, and spending a lot of time with the victim and her environs before the crime actually takes place. Like most of James’ novels, this one involves a small institution of some kind with a precarious financial future, and a limited cast of subjects connected with it.
Perhaps I’m a bit jaded, but I’d expected a few more twists and turns out of this. There’s one point, quite near the end, but not near enough that it seemed a culprit should really be revealed, when all evidence seemed to point to one person. “Ah,” I reasoned, “this person is the red herring. We will now get the twist ending when it will turn out to have been Y instead of X!” Except all that happens is that X commits a completely unnecessary additional act of violence and gets found out, leaving me going, “Oh. It was X. Huh.”
Much like the previous book, The Lighthouse, this could possibly be the last in the Dalgleish series. The whole reason Dalgleish’s squad is on the case in the first place is because a wealthy client of the clinic got her politically connected hubby to pull some strings. This rankles with Dalgleish quite a lot, as one might imagine, and the increasing politicization of his squad, along with the possibility that it will be eliminated in forthcoming budget cuts, makes him ponder retirement. The door’s still open, however, as the novel ends without Dalgleish making a firm decision in either way.
If this is the last novel, I’ll be slightly disappointed in the ending, which doesn’t focus on him at all. Instead, we get an epilogue about those still at the clinic as well as an attendee’s view of Dalgleish’s wedding. Then again, perhaps this slipping out of the limelight and into quiet, happy domesticity exactly parallels Dalgleish’s fate. That’d be nice.