THE PRIVATE PATIENT by P.D. James (Knopf, 2009)
By THE WRITING DOCTOR: NY Hoffman, email@example.com,
16 San Rafael Dr, Rochester, NY, 585-385-1515
We’re all growing older. Well, maybe not growing. More like getting there.
With 78 million American boomers hitting 60, with an even higher percentage of UK denizens trying to figure out what to do about the aging "process," novels increasingly focus on the dilemmas of older characters. For the reading public grows older by the minute. What’s more. As writers get gray—and grayer, they write about what it’s like. Or not to like.
Lately, many writers in their 70s and yes, their 80s, have turned their magnifying glasses to what happens or doesn’t happen with age. Philip Roth’s EVERYMAN and EXIT GHOST, Margaret Drabble’s THE SEA LADY: A LATE ROMANCE, Jose Saramago’s DEATH WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS. Larry McMurtry’s WHEN THE LIGHT GOES all focus on the failures of flesh and spirit, the losses accompanying too many candles on birthday cakes.
At 88, P.D. James is older than this crew, an inspiration to keep going for everyone who hates counting birthday candles. In her latest novel, THE PRIVATE PATIENT, James indicts aging as “the amorphous flattening of self.” Yet Adam Dalgleish, her stalwart poetry-writing detective, seems ageless as far as searching Google can ascertain. A longtime widower, he’s apparently much older than Emma, his fiancée, or so her distant father believes.
Yet both James and Dalgleish are coming to the end of their ropes. When Dalgleish looks upon the remnants of Rhoda Gradwyn’s body, strangled after her plastic surgery to remove a childhood facial scar, he thinks, “This was not the most horrific corpse he had seen in his years as a detective," yet he wonders, "Perhaps I’ve had enough of murder.”
What faces say and don’t say fascinates James. Dalgleish, who dominates 14 of her novels—including this one-- first appeared in James’s 1962 novel, COVER HER FACE. Gradwyn, a mudslinging journalistic dredger long known for exposing hidden truths, has decided to have her surgery because she “no longer needed her scar.” Yet the reader, who comes to identify with her, never knows what spawned this decision.
Who killed Rhoda Gradwyn? And why? The group at Cheverell Manor, the Tudor mansion now converted into a plastic surgery clinic, is rife with potential murderers. From Dr Chandler-Powell, the plastic surgeon himself, to his worried and worrying staff, James depicts each suspect, warts—motives—and all.
James makes it clear that institutions ostensibly caring for patients whether for facial alterations or getting older are not what they seem. Dalgleish and his team obtain the final clues to youth’s ancient stalking of age from an old lawyer whose last days are barricaded in a nursing facility where “care had been taken not to distress visitors by displaying any notice bearing the words retirement, elderly, nursing, or home.”
What now? Does Rhoda Gradwyn’s murder signify the end of both Baroness James’s mysteries and Adam Dalgleish’s cerebral solutions? We don’t know.
Still, guessing is an honorable art for mystery readers, whether old or young. THE PRIVATE PATIENT peopled by lonely losers ends with their tidy couplings worthy of Dickens. Future Jamesian readers can only hope that age will not wither James’s infinite variety nor will Dalgleish's marriage spoil her classical detective’s insights.