Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
P. D. JAMES – The Lighthouse. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover. First US Edition, 2005. Vintage, trade paperback, October 2016.
Yes, Steve reviewed this recently, and no he didn’t much care for it, in fact he didn’t get far before James somewhat dense prose slowed him to a halt. This is a much more positive review of the same book.
The Lighthouse is a somewhat slimmer book than many of the later James novels, a welcome respite from writers like Elizabeth George who seem determined to slay Sherwood Forest with their latest doorstop mystery. It is the 16th Adam Dalgliesh mystery and finds him at a crossroads in his life.
Our sleuths are Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard whose unit, consisting of D.I. Kate Miskin and Sgt. Francis Benton-Smith catches a possible murder on Combe Island off the Cornish coast. Dalgiesh is in the middle of an affair and torn about his feelings for the woman; Miskin involved with a former colleague; and Benton-Smith, a half-Indian bright young thing newly assigned to the unit falling in love with a woman he knows isn’t going to fall in love with him.
To further muddy waters Miskin doesn’t much like Benton-Smith and resents his class, and he in turn is none to happy to have a woman who obviously dislikes him in charge of him. Add to the team the difficult forensic pathologist Professor Glenister, a woman in her mid-sixties, semi-retired with a tendency to pedantry, who is assigned to accompany the trio.
Combe Island is another of James’s closed societies, the kind of place James loves to set her novels in, a place with a colorful history of pirates, wreckers, storms, and cruelty. Owned by the Holcombe family for generations it was left to be used as a sort of secular retreat for the great and famous who need a little down time and privacy.
The PM hopes to hold a high end meeting on the island in the near future so security and discretion are of the highest order. Now one of the guests, novelist Nathan Oliver, has been found hanged in the old lighthouse which was burned in WWII and restored. None of the people on the island is particularly happy to see outsiders arrive, much less nosy police types asking awkward questions.
As Emily Holcombe, last of the Holcombe’s observes, they aren’t the sort who usually visit the island.
Steve found the going too slow and dense, and I don’t flaw him on that, but I enjoyed James carefully crafted prose. You don’t find passages like this too often today describing the scene as Dalgliesh leaves the room where the body has been examined:
And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him, it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.
It’s a good investigation. Dalgliesh finds his life threatened by an unexpected outside force and Miskin and Benton-Smith are forced to work together in a way neither is ready for. Of course the usual lies are uncovered, a crime dating back to WWII surfaces, raw emotions are laid bare, and Miskin and Benton-Smith are forced to face the killer before he strikes again in the deserted lighthouse of the title.
This one proves a very physical case, and there are some fine passages late in the book where Benton-Smith puts his life in real danger simply retrieving evidence, the climbing scenes particularly well-written.
I will add a small caveat. I’m afraid I spotted the killer, not because of clues or any mistake on James part, but because of a certain distaste both Miskin and Benton-Smith show for a rather fussy porcelain figure in the suspects living quarters. I refer to these as television moments because they are the literary equivalent of figuring out who the killer is because of the actor cast in the part. In a James novel tacky taste is motive enough to be a murderer.
James does not write in short staccato sentences. She not an advocate of the hard-boiled style, and her books are more novels about murder than thrillers, detective novels more than detective stories, a subtle difference, but one I think true of her work as well as Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George. She became more novelistic as she aged, and while her work is nowhere near as painful to read as John Le Carré’s tangled prose, she writes English prose ‘as she is written’ to borrow a phrase.
Most readers are not going to race through this at a sitting. If, on the other hand, you invest some time, let James detail-oriented heavily descriptive prose envelop you, and become involved with Dalgiesh, Miskin, and Benton-Smith as well as the various suspects, it is a good book, a solid read and not a flashy or quick one. I enjoyed getting to know the people involved as human beings and not simply quickly sketched in character parts. James can be cinematic, but only in the sense of a Gainsborough Studio or Ivory and Merchant film.
I have to admit there are things in James books that I enjoy that most people would not care for. When someone leaves a copy of Middlemarch for Dalgliesh to read, he thinks of it as “that safe stand-by for a desert island” — as good of a description of that book as I have ever read. A mention of William Morris wallpaper tells us all we need to know of a room and its potential inhabitants, and Miskin hearing “small agreeable sounds from the kitchen” as her lover makes coffee of morning is a perfect touch.
Blue tongues licked the dry wood and the firelight strengthened, burnishing the polished mahogany and casting its glow over the spines of the leather covered books, the stone floor and the brightly colored rugs.
I’ll read almost anything with passages like that.
Perhaps the best line comes mid-book when Benton-Smith wonders if the murder of Nathan Oliver will harm the island’s reputation and Dalgliesh replies: “Combe will recover. The island has forgotten worse horrors than putting an end to Nathan Oliver.”
Depending on what kind of mystery you are looking for, this is a fine example, especially for a book so late in a writer’s career and an ongoing series.