I just finished this book the other day:
It was a pretty good read, but P.D. James is a conundrum for me. On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for her, as a person with obvious principles and as a writer. Her style is so good, so deliberate and slowly paced, and yet so compelling. The Children of Men was an amazing work, just so thoughtful and mind-blowing and exciting. Who’d have ever thought of writing a book about a world where no one has children anymore, and no one knows why? P.D. freakin’ James, that’s who. (Has anyone seen the movie? I’ve heard it’s good, though very different from the book – I think that’s why I’ve avoided it.) And she’s a baroness now, oh yeah. Very impressive.
But…(you knew there was a but, right?) but…hmm. Everything in James’ novels is meticulously plotted, meticulously written. The characters are three-dimensional, and generally much more interesting than anything Aunt Agatha dreamed up. Commander Dalgliesh is a fascinating man as well as a very clever (and brave) detective. The mysteries are engaging…and often really REALLY disturbing – I admit I still have pre-sleep nightmare thoughts about one of the deaths in The Murder Room (you know which one). So why don’t I lurve James the way I love the Golden Age mysteries and their authors?
Maybe it’s because the James books are so sad. Everyone in them (including Dalgliesh) is in some way haunted/damaged/depressed/bereft/twisted/all of the above. All of the characters are dealing with some sort of loss – it got to the point at one time that I was surprised to find a James character with an actually intact family. Which is compelling, but hardly escapist. If I want something to take me away, even briefly, from the myriad minor cares and worries of my life, I’m not sure I want to read something about really depressed people, one of whom has just lit one of the others on fire. But, you know, that’s me. And some of her earlier works are just gems of detective fiction.
Despite all this, I did enjoy The Private Patient. It was a good story, with interesting people. I guess the best part was that it ended on a hopeful note, even after all the misery and violence:
The world is a beautiful and terrible place, deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain surely it would shake the stars, but we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it for it is all we have.
And if you’re wondering, yes, that is a very hopeful paragraph in the world of P.D. James.