I liked The Private Patient by P. D. James  

Posted by Denis Haack in ,

Some people dismiss mysteries as light reading, perhaps good enough for the beach, perhaps, but not really the sort of literature that serious readers will embrace. And Lord knows, grocery stores are chock full of novels that achieve mystery status only by a trick. The trick is a cheap one, and consists of simply withholding one essential bit of information from the reader until the very last moment when the crime is solved. Others trade on the trick of having a detective so quirky that the novels are enjoyed primarily because readers want to know what new weird eccentricities will be revealed as the plot unfolds. Others trade on the trick of glorifying the crime, and the criminal element, appealing to our prurient interests.


Still, finely crafted mysteries are a delight. And for good reason.


We yearn for justice in this sad world, and a good mystery satisfies that, making our hope that much more plausible. Good mystery authors probe the deep questions of life, of meaning, evil and redemption. They help us face reality as it really is, and show that no matter what learned arguments can be drafted in favor of some sort of postmodern relativistic meaninglessness, a certain sense of right and wrong is essential to living life.


Given all that, it is not surprising to find that three of the finest mystery writers of our age are Christians: Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, and P. D. James. Their faith produced in them a confidence in justice that extended beyond the limited boundaries of human history. The God of Scripture is not just theoretically committed to justice, but entered human history to guarantee its victory. So we wait, yearning for the justice that will be revealed, hoping that the final justice will, as promised, not merely solve the crime but transform the tragedy into shalom.


P. D. James is now 89 (she was born in 1920), and in The Private Patient we can sense she is drawing things to a close. Her detective Adam Dalgliesh, is engaged to be married, and his specialized squad of investigators is about to be disbanded. I always finished her previous Dalgliesh mysteries with the sense that another would be forthcoming—I don’t have that sense this time.


In this novel, a patient of an expensive cosmetic surgeon is strangled the night after her surgery. The inhabitants, servants, and medical personnel in the country manor house that day all have secrets they would rather not have revealed, and as the story unfolds the wickedness of the human heart is laid bare. Even those innocent of the murder are not innocent. The ending reminds us that human justice is always partial, never fully satisfying even when the murderer is caught.


I don’t think this Dalgliesh mystery is James’ best novel (her best, I think, is Children of Men). A detail near the end strained plausibility, and the notion of a murder in a large manor in the English countryside strikes me as a bit stereotyped. Still, I have enjoyed P. D. James’ books, especially The Children of Men (1992) a story that so clearly demonstrates her profoundly Christian world and life view. So, I was glad to read this one. Glad to be reminded that it is right to yearn for justice, and that when the hope of justice is gone, something essential to our humanity has died.


This entry was posted at Saturday, January 03, 2009 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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