The Lighthouse

the-lighthouseI seem to be on a bit of a mystery-reading binge lately. I’m not sure why — maybe just because I was browsing the mystery section for Kate Atkinson’s books, and found myself pulling a couple of others off the shelves as well. Mysteries used to be my most reliable entertainment, and P.D. James is among the best of British crime-writers. She’s been writing her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries since 1962, so she’s certainly got the credentials, and The Lighthouse, her 13th Dalgliesh mystery, is a good, solid, pleasurable read.

James is fond of what, essentially, are locked-room mysteries: murders that take place in small, closed communities, among a limited number of suspects. The Lighthouse takes place on Combe, an island off the coast of Cornwall. Combe houses a retreat center dedicated to the peace and security of the Very Important: prime ministers, captains of industry, and prizewinning artists all come to recharge in the island’s quiet atmosphere. On this occasion, however, one of the guests is causing a disturbance to that peace. Nathan Oliver, famous author, is a petty, argumentative man, but that would be bearable; several of the staff and guests have reason to dislike him, but surely not to kill him. Yet when he’s found hanging from the island lighthouse, Adam Dalgliesh, DI Kate Miskin, and DS Benton-Smith have to try to discover the secrets beneath the reserve of the island’s inhabitants, despite the personal distractions — love, ambition, class — tugging at their attention.

I think perhaps the best word to describe this book is “orderly.” There’s a genuine satisfaction in a jigsaw-puzzle mystery like this, in which things are relatively predictable (you know the most-hated character will be killed, for instance), and in which no detail is missed in pursuing the solution. James’s trademark prose is clear, precise, and often lovely, if not jaw-droppingly realistic as far as dialogue goes — her educated adult characters are all well-spoken in the same sort of cadence, while her young, rebellious characters are a bit less believable. Still, the book does exactly what a mystery is supposed to do. It takes the chaos in society, the violence, the rage, and pins it to one place, one person. All the pieces fit together. James does this satisfyingly and clearly, as always. And for those who have been reading about Adam Dalgliesh for forty years, she offers insight into his character and his life. Only a few mysteries really knock it out of the park, but this is a solid, enjoyable base hit from one of our really good mystery authors.

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4 Responses to The Lighthouse

  1. Steph says:

    You know, I really enjoy mysteries as comfort reads (who knew murder could be so soothing?), but I’ve never read any P.D. James! Does it matter which of her books you start with, or could I pick up any of them on a whim and enjoy it as much as if I read in order?

  2. Jenny says:

    Steph — The books reveal a bit about the lives of the detectives, so there is a very small value to going in order. Each book stands on its own pretty well, though — James wrote something on the order of three or four a decade, so readers couldn’t be expected to keep up with every detail. I’d encourage you to pick whatever looks good!

  3. Steph says:

    I went ahead at the used bookstore today and picked up a copy of Original Sin. It was only $1.50, which I figured was a fair enough price for trying out a new author! Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of her mysteries involve priests? Maybe it was just the selection I saw today that has biased that opinion…

  4. Jenny says:

    Steph — come to think of it, quite a few do. I think it’s less about the priests themselves than about her preference for setting mysteries in small, closed communities. Schools and hospitals are also big with her. Enjoy!

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