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.
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