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Ten Little Suspects
P.D. James' The Lighthouse

In her thirteenth novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, James enlivens a familiar limited-suspects scenario with strong character development and superb writing.

Granted, the plot of The Lighthouse, P.D. James’ latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery, isn’t particularly original. A man is found dead on an island off the Cornish coast of England, and given the island’s remote location, one of its handful of inhabitants is almost certainly the murderer.

Sound familiar? Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, to say nothing of all those treasured country manor mysteries where the estates are so remote that they function as freestanding islands.

While its setting and limited-suspects scenario lack originality, though, The Lighthouse is an aggressively plotted whodunit whose muscular storytelling is especially impressive given James’ age (she’s 85). Her two most recent efforts may have been a little weak, but this time James has managed to produce a worthy new entry in the growing Dalgliesh library.

James’ fictional Combe Island is run by a charitable trust and serves as a private retreat for important figures who have worked “in the service of the Crown and of their country.” The prime minister is scheduled to hold a “top-secret international get-together” on the island soon, so Dalgliesh, a commander from New Scotland Yard, must find the murderer without causing a public stir. The situation is sticky, to say the least. An accidental death would be tolerable, but a murder or a suicide would be unacceptable, an official tells him.

The dead man, an aging novelist named Nathan Oliver, was certainly unpleasant enough to provoke murderous thoughts, and James does particularly strong work giving many of the island’s visitors cause to show up on Dalgliesh’s list of suspects. Among them are Oliver’s daughter Miranda and his copy editor Dennis Tremlett, whose secret engagement Oliver had angrily discovered shortly before his death; Emily Holcombe, the independent octogenarian whose cottage Oliver was trying to acquire through bulling threats; Dr. Mark Yelland, whose research laboratory was the model for an animal-abusing facility in Oliver’s latest manuscript; and Dr. Raimund Speidel, a retired German diplomat who recently found that Oliver’s family may have been involved in his father’s mysterious death.

With a collection of carefully drawn suspects like this, the detective’s (and reader’s) task becomes a winnowing one: who can be eliminated, and why?

Dalgliesh is accompanied in his investigation by James regulars Detective Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, who take an active role in the investigation after Dalgliesh falls seriously ill. Dalgliesh’s long-time love interest, Emma Lavenham, is relegated to a minor role this time out, though, which may please readers who like their mysteries to be delivered without extraneous subplots.

The Lighthouse isn’t flawless. The island itself proves to be only moderately interesting over the length of the book, and towards the end James seems to push the investigators from one cottage to another with too much speed, as if she is simply getting tired of the limited setting, herself.

More importantly, the mystery’s solution may not satisfy readers who expect their mysteries to offer all the relevant clues somewhere in the text (no matter how well-concealed). But James is an exceptionally good writer, and the sheer quality of her prose and her skill at building a sophisticated mystery should more than satisfy her fans.

—Review by Daphne Frostchild

Posted December 1, 2005



About the Author

photo credit: Ulla Montan

P.D. James is the author of eighteen previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law departments of Great Britain's Home Offfice. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. She lives in London and Oxford.



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