on 26 October 2005
P.D. James is one of world's most respected mystery-writers. She is one of the last, and certainly the greatest, of the world's writers of classic detective mysteries. She's the last because the genre has largely gone out of fashion (mostly due to the limited range of things which can be done within it), and she's the greatest because she alone still stands diligently by it and does find new and innovative things to flex the form. She single-handedly imbues the golden age detective story with a muscular and persuasive strength that means her variations, almost alone, are able to stand up to the new forms of crime fiction. Not just that: any kinds of fiction.
The privately owned island of Combe, just off the Cornish coast, has been turned into a place of rest and sanctuary for people - necessarily rich ones - who wish to escape the stresses of their normal every-day lives. As such it is insular, offers almost unlimited privacy, and has a very small staff. Immediately, here is the classic James setting: isolated, full of history, slightly sinister, coming complete with a small clutch of interesting suspects. It's obvious, then, that when acclaimed - and abrasive - writer Nathan Oliver starts trouncing around the island antagonising the other residents and guests, that a murder is going to occur some-time soon... And so it does. One misty morning Oliver is found hanging from the top of the island's lighthouse. And there's no shortage of people who may have wanted him dead...
Nathan was not a popular character. Manipulative for the purposes of his fiction (he loves to observe in order to write... the worst of these instances when he tipped retired priest and ex-alcoholic Adrian Brodey off the wagon and into turmoil) and selfish, he's made himself no fans. He's been trying to oust elderly Emily Holcombe, last of the Holcombe family, from her cottage and is demanding it for himself. He's caused a heated fracas with another visitor, Dr Mark Yelland, a research scientist a character in Oliver's new book bears a strikingly unpleasant resemblance to. He's forbidden his daughter's marriage to his copy-editor, and has created a whole host of other petty enmities. The question, though, is any of them important enough to be a motive for murder? Or is it something else entirely?
Despite James's huge acclaim and popularity, The Lighthouse is not her greatest book. She never fails to create and interesting mystery peopled with interesting suspects, and hasn't here; she never fails to write intelligently and well, and hasn't here; she never fails to engage or provide enjoyment, and hasn't here. But this novel is less inspired than many of her greatest mysteries (A Certain Justice, Original Sin, Innocent Blood), and to an extent there's a feeling of her going through the motions of the form she has made her own: creating the batch of intriguing suspects, giving them each a hazy and interesting past, coming up with a mysterious and claustrophobic setting in which to house the mystery, and giving that too an interesting and hazy past (Combe island has been home to everything from pirates to German soldiers), and then boxing everything together with a nasty murder and an elusive mystery. It's possibly just me, but before she's always managed to provide something extra as well, on top of the mystery, (the philosophical aspects of theology in Death in Holy Orders, for example, or even just an incisive portrait of an enclosed society and the people in it) but here that doesn't really seem to be there. There's a mystery, a bit of history, and that's pretty much it.
Dalgliesh, too, is less engaging than in past outings (and he's never been my favourite detective anyway; he's a bit of a dull fish, really). He's a bit vague, a bit distracted by his [annoying] love-interest, Emma Lavenham, whom he proposed to in the previous book. He does far too much moping for my liking. True, it makes him a rounded and realistic character, but he's not really as interesting while doing it (though, as a positive, it's good to see this new, uncertain side of him).
The two great successes of the book are the portrait of Combe, which is atmospheric as always (even if it's not as grippingly sinister as usual), and the character of Nathan Oliver, who completely dominates the book even though the victim. He's not a pleasant person at all, but he's a completely fascinating one, and it's down to the force of his personality that the reader stays interested during the middle of the book when things get a bit dull. Worry not, though: there are one or two pivotal happenings at about page 200 that breathe new life into the story completely.
Overall, The Lighthouse is a success, but not a big one. It seems a little perfunctory at times, but there's certainly still enough here to make the thing worth buying. Longstanding fans will buy and enjoy as ever, but newcomers should look elsewhere. As ever, James provides a good mystery with a sensible solution, though. I thought I knew whodunnit, but they died on page 250.