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Friday, February 23, 2007


P.D. James is arguably the greatest contemporary mystery writer. The Lighthouse, her 2005 Adam Dagliesh mystery, written, btw, at age 85, is a stunning whodunit set on Combe, a fictional island off the English Cornwall coast, a rocky, forbidding, nearly inaccessible blip used by the rich and famous who leave body guards and worries behind for two weeks' total seclusion and safety. Or so they think.

When Adam Dagliesh and his investigatory team are called to Combe to solve a death that residents and guests prefer to think a suicide rather than a murder, P.D. James complicates the plot significantly when each resident and guest is interviewed and reveals personal animus toward the deceased.

A.D.'s two assistants, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith (Benton), young detectives learning the investigatory ropes from the master, are interesting characters bringing their own "baggage" to the island. While they learn from Dagliesch, they also do a lot of introspection, learn about themselves and, to some degree, about each other.

P.D. James' character building skills are brilliant; each character, major or minor, reveals himself as a multi-dimensional human being with all the strengths, foibles, and backgrounds we all have. Reading P.D. James is entering unseen into the lives of many different kinds of people--in this case from the richest titled aristocrat to the poorest waif found wandering the streets and brought to Combe to work. Each one comes alive, and each is entirely realistic. They're the ones you want to follow through the novel, and their personalities entice the reader to try to solve the mystery.

Combe, itself, emerges as a character of sorts. Although a haven, it is a cold, rocky place with a history of death dating back to WWII as well as a legacy of secrecy. Despite the beauty of its flowers, its forbidding and isolating rocky cliffs present climbing challenges for even skilled climbers, and its air of mystery is enhanced by the partial ruins of its lighthouse. A buggy and bicycles are the modes of travel, and the cottages housing Combe's guests are isolated, separated by rude paths only connected in the dark nights through the glow of distant lights peeking through the windows. Only Mrs. Plunkett has a television, and the entire locale is shrouded with a cloak of privacy. Intriguing and tantalizing, Combe is closed to all but a select few.

One of the many attributes of a P. D. James novel that I adore is that she is undeniably British. There is a wonderful flavor to her writing and a literary quality I love. She plays her music with the English language, plumbing its prodigious nuances for the exact word. She's a pleasure to read in a world that often writes in the most dummy-it-down simplicity.

Try P. D. James. Try this novel. Read it while you sip a cup of Earl Grey.
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