The latest Adam Dalgleish novel, The Private Patient, is published in paperback by Penguin on 24 September. It’s P.D. James’ 18th novel, and I read and enjoyed it upon publication last year. Apparently, it was a ‘top five bestseller in hardback’. I’m never quite sure about the definition of ‘bestseller’. I can even recall seeing promotional literature which has referred to a couple of my books as bestsellers, which in all honesty does require a bit of an imaginative leap. But one thing is for sure, P.D. James is genuinely a Premier League crime writer, and her sales must put her close to the top of any table.
The key figure in the book is Rhoda Gradwyn, a notorious investigative journalist. Her face is scarred, and as the blurb correctly, if rather melodramatically, puts it, the scar ‘was to be the death of her’. She checks into a private clinic for cosmetic surgery, only to meet her Maker in rather grim circumstances.
Rhoda is one of those characters whose life and behaviour provide plenty of people with reason to kill her. By detective fiction standards, she is a natural victim. This book was one of those that I covered in my recent paper at the St Hilda’s conference, dealing with ‘sinful victims’. Sinful victims, as I tried to show, are a staple of the genre, although I very much enjoy those books where the victim is apparently so blameless that there is a real mystery as to who would wish to kill them. Playing games with human motivation is one of the great challenges for whodunit writers, I think. The aim nowadays must be to come up with a solution to the game that does not defy credibility, and treats the players in the game as believable human beings.
P.D. James is very good at this, I think. The Private Patient is not by any means her best book (my choice would be Devices and Desires), and there are some parts of the closing section which I struggled with, but it’s nevertheless an excellent read. An incidental pleasure for me came with her references in the story-line to the late, great Cyril Hare, in whose footsteps she followed when she first signed up with Faber and Faber – which, remarkably, was not all that far short of half a century ago.