Crumpets, tea, murder
In her latest mystery, P. D. James, a master of the genre, offers a remote old manor, a mysterious house staff with possible motives for murder, dark family secrets, and a portrait of the English upper class. The setting for "The Private Patient" is stately, ancient Cheverell Manor in Dorset, where London-based investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn arrives and is soon strangled to death. Poet and police investigator Adam Dalgliesh looks for the killer among the manor's staff.
James unravels the mystery slowly, as if sitting her readers down for crumpets and a relaxing cup of tea. James (also known as Baroness James) knows the English upper crust and their exceedingly civil worldview, and she serves up a strong brew of social climbing, petty jealousies, score settling, gossip, and backstabbing worthy of the nastiest Evelyn Waugh novel.
Throughout, her prose style remains as stately and proper as Cheverell Manor. Here's how she opens one scene: "From the sun-drenched earth there rose a pungent miasma of rotting leaves and sodden grass. Autumn had come early this year, but already its mellow refulgence had faded." Following Dalgliesh's meticulous investigation, as he interviews suspects and discusses clues among his team of investigators, James narrows the evidence and moves her readers toward a resolution of the mystery. Throughout, the manor itself is one of her most important characters. When Dalgliesh arrives to see Gradwyn's dead body, much of his focus is on the furniture: the room "was too carefully furnished, achieving an organized perfection which for him was unwelcoming . . . the Georgian writing desk, the two modern easy chairs before a stone grate fitted with an electric heater." In James's fictional landscape, bad taste seems like a crime, too.
There are suspects aplenty at Cheverell Manor, including the manor owner and plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell; his assistant Marcus Westhall, Marcus's sister Candace; an aggrieved Westhall cousin named Robin Boyton who was disowned by the family; and various members of the staff. Dalgliesh interviews them all, finds inconsistencies in their stories, investigates the evidence, and follows every lead. Nothing is as it first appears.
Anyone who likes murder mysteries mixed with old houses, old furniture, and characters who would be at home in a Victorian novel will enjoy "The Private Patient." Just be sure to wipe your feet before you step onto the floral carpet, and be careful not to spill your tea.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.