The Lighthouse

By P. D. James
ISBN 0-7393-2558-2
(Large Print edition)

Publication Year: 2005

Tags: Mystery, Suspense, Procedural

Rating: ★★★★☆

This thirteenth in the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series find the poet-detective on Combe Island, an isolated and exclusive place of rest and respite limited to certain governmental VIPs and those whose island trust have deemed to have rights of residence (occasional or permanent) due to their ancestral relationship to the island. When the somewhat infamous writer Nathan Oliver tries to throw about his self-perceived weight with islanders and guests alike, he becomes quite soundly disliked by one and all. Then, when he is found hanging by the neck from the gallery railing of the island’s famous lighthouse, the age-old question rears its head: Suicide or murder?

(To answer one question quickly: A store selling used books was selling their entire inventory for $1/book, and I nabbed all I could afford. This large-print edition was quite the steal, at that price.)

The joy in reading a James mystery novel is two-fold. The reader will always find the plot, the mystery itself, engaging and filled with interesting twists and turns. More, however, the reader will find a richness of character, narration, and dialog that, as has been noted by many reviewers and critics, lifts her books high above the bars set for both mystery fiction and literature in general. James is the author to turn to when you seek deliciously detailed description, three-dimensional characters, and a thoroughness of police procedure that is complete yet doesn’t bog down the story in any way. It’s my understanding that James had a lifelong love of Jane Austen, and I think it no exaggeration that her prose is on par with Austen’s. (James combined her loves in the book Death Comes to Pemberly, an imagined murder-mystery sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that is very definitely on my reading list.)

The Lighthouse was the first of two final Dalgliesh mysteries published after James’ death in November 2014. The root of the mystery is cleverly established, with two particularly important clues presented with nuanced nonchalance. Motivations and actions are clearly and fairly stated, and if you can separate the important bits from the crimson carps, you really can figure out whodunit. You’ll need to stay alert, however, because although set in modern times (early 2000s), the story has many characteristics of a classic British village manor house murder.

Combe Island (a fictional, isolated chunk of real estate off the Cornish coast) is cut off from the rest of the world, accessible by boat and helicopter but exclusive and stand-offish in every way. A main house and a sprinkling of individual cottages are tended by a handful of servants who are as rooted to the island as is the great lighthouse itself. A few of the residents are permanent, as descendants of the family to whom the island was entrusted, and they too are very much a part of it. The handful of guests and their hangers-on are of course prime suspects, and the entire story can be seen as the famous model of isolated house, limited suspects, and various intrigues that puts nearly everyone’s possible motives and questionable alibis into such beautiful relief.

For those concerned about reading this book without reading its prequels, I can safely say that there is certainly joy in reading from the beginning, but this book (like those others) is sufficiently self-supporting that you’ll enjoy it for itself. For example, Dalgleish’s rise to fame as a poet is more thoroughly discussed in earlier books, but not knowing those details would not detract from the pleasure of solving this particular mystery.

Since I have praised James’ prose so highly, it seems only fair to offer some. Following is a description of Combe Island seen from the helicopter that Dalgliesh and his two colleagues take to get to the island:

It was only minutes before they were passing over the crinkled blue of the Bristol Channel, and almost at once Combe Island lay beneath them, as unexpectedly as if it had risen from the waves, multicolored and as sharply defined as a coloured photograph, its silver granite cliffs towering from a white boiling of foam. Dalgliesh reflected that it was impossible to view an offshore island from the air without a quickening of the spirit. Bathed in autumnal sunshine there stretched a sea-estranged other world, deceptively calm but rekindling boyhood memories of fictional mystery, excitement and danger. Every island to a child is a treasure island. Even to an adult mind Combe, like every small island, sent out a paradoxical message: the contrast between its calm isolation and the latent power of the sea, which both protected and threatened its self-contained alluring peace.

That is the sort of description that makes reading James’ work so satisfying. Enjoy it.

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