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Onyx reviews: The Private Patient by P.D. James

The Private Patient has the feel of a benediction. Whether it is James's swan song or that of her creation, Commander Adam Dalgliesh remains to be seen.

Dalgliesh heads up a Special Investigation Squad with Scotland Yard tasked with handling potentially sensitive or delicate cases. The murder of reporter Rhoda Gradwyn qualifies, especially when some of the parties caught up in the investigation have political connections.

Setting is as important as character in James's novels. In this case it is Cheverell Manor in Dorset. The grounds feature a stone circle where a suspected witch was burned hundreds of years ago. The manor belonged to a family for generations before being sold out of necessity to plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell and converted into a private hospital where he performs surgeries on rich patients requiring private surroundings. Many of the people who work for Chandler-Powell are locals who knew the building in its previous incarnation. Not everyone approves of its current owner or his use of the building. 

The victim, Rhoda Gradwyn, wasn't universally loved. Her investigative reports destroyed careers and lives, including that of a young writer who plagiarized some of the descriptions in her novel. Gradwyn was recovering from cosmetic surgery to remove a facial scar when someone strangled her. In an interesting piece of unexplored characterization, Gradwyn decided to have the scar removed—which received at the hands of her abusive father—because she no longer has use for it, a decision she makes after her mother remarries.

The murder is clearly a crime of passion and anger. However, Cheverell Manor has only one other patient on the premises and was scrupulously locked down each evening, so it was almost certainly an inside job. The murder of a patient is bad publicity for the clinic—it may, in fact, be fatal to the business—so whoever was responsible didn't care about the greater repercussions of the crime. Chandler-Powell is as outraged by the fact that someone killed his patient after he performed a successful surgery on her as he is by the killing itself.

James takes her time setting up the situation, although she foreshadows the murder and the victim in the book's opening pages. The murder doesn't take place for nearly 100 pages, and Dalgliesh, the poet-homicide detective doesn't appear until Book Two. Readers learn very little about the victim, but much about those who treat and take care of her. Of course, this wouldn't be an effective murder mystery if everything was revealed. People have secrets—some that pertain to the murder, but many that do not.

Once the investigation begins, things still do not move quickly. Getting to the bottom of a crime like this takes diligent and tedious police work. Interviews. Trips into London to chase down leads. Sifting through mountains of documents and records. Breakthroughs are few and far between and happen only when people either inadvertently let something slip or grudgingly disclose something they didn't think was important.

The case takes on added urgency after a second murder occurs on the grounds. To think that two murderers might be at work under roof defies explanation, but the apparent connections between the two crimes are tenuous at best.

Dalgliesh is also struggling with the possible end of his career, and with his impending marriage to Emma Lavenham. He struggles to keep his professional and private lives separate, to protect Emma from the horrors of his job.

James is probably past her prime as a plotter, but her writing is still as elegant and erudite as ever. She gets bogged down in minutia, some of which never pays off. Too, the resolution of the case is not completely satisfactory. Though Dalgliesh was on the verge of making an arrest, the killer takes matters into his or her own hands, and provides a complete confession that fills in details that probably would never have come to light via the investigation. The confession does, however, satisfy Dalgliesh's obsessive need to know the truth—even beyond solving the crime. 

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