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Onyx reviews: The Lighthouse by P.D. James

The genre blithely labeled "mystery" in many markets embraces a wide range of categories, including police procedurals, legal thrillers, straight suspense novels and the classic whodunit. Current trends lean more toward the first three of these sub-genres and less toward the latter, which was popularized by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and others. People tend to think of whodunits as distinctly British, taking place in isolated, self-contained settings with a limited cast of character-suspects. Effete detectives parse a smattering of dissociated clues and come up with the unique solution to the crime—usually a murder—at least one step before the reader gets there. At least that's the hope.

The Lighthouse meets some of these conventional expectations and defies others. The story does indeed take place in an isolated British setting: the fictional Combe Island off the coast of Cornwall, a legendary location where famous people retreat when they want to get away from the limelight without having to bring a legion of security with them.

The victim is Nathan Oliver, a highly regarded but mercurial author who has ruffled more than a few feathers along his path to fame and notoriety—some of whom are on the island at the time of his death. His status as someone born on Combe Island grants him special privileges that not everyone is happy to see granted. The island has an intriguing past—the Germans attempted to occupy it during WW II and ancestors of some of its current residents played a gruesome role in ensuring that didn't happen.

Since the island is soon to be used for a political retreat, Commander Adam Dalgleish is brought in to clear up the case and assure the international community that Combe Island remains a secure enclave. It would be a lot easier for everyone if the death proved to be accidental, or even suicide. He brings with him a skeleton crew team: Inspector Kate Miskin—who has unresolved feelings for Dalgleish—and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, new to the squad and battling prejudice against his mixed-race status.

From the reader's perspective, the task is straightforward: witness the testimony of the various suspects and decide which ones are lying, and why. Not all lies are told to hide guilt or innocence—people have secrets they wish to safeguard even if they aren't involved in the crime being investigated. James's stories are never straightforward, and she is adept at leading her detectives and her readers down any number of garden paths while, at the same time, being completely fair about revealing information. The trick is always to bury the important evidence in plain sight in an array of extraneous detail.

Some authors advance their series characters in real time. Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus, for example, has aged chronologically since first introduced by his creator. Other characters seem hardly to age or change at all. James's characters rest somewhere in between these two extremes. Dalgleish, the poet copper, found new love in a recent novel and he and his Emma are struggling to figure out what their new relationship means and where it is going. However, Dalgleish is so often thrown into high-profile cases, that there's very little time in any given book to add much forward progress to her characters. Inspector Rebus runs the very real risk of having to retire from the police force while his creator is still a young author. At 85, P.D. James has no such worries, though James does allow Miskin to step into the limelight and prove her mettle as a possible replacement for Dalgleish should it ever come to that.

However, for a writer of her era, James has a thoroughly modern view of the world. Though she has a leisurely approach to storytelling, she brings in such contemporary issues as a SARS outbreak (though it seems a little passť now), bisexuality, religious ennui, teen bravado and angst. She doesn't hesitate for a moment to have Miskin strip and grease down her body (with Benton-Smith's tentative help) to help her get through a tight situation, a scene that would surely have mortified Ms Christie.

The past always plays a part in the present. The question P. D. James successfully hides to the end of this clever, thoughtful mystery is: Which part of the past led to the Oliver's death?

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