Monday, February 16, 2015

Past and present collide in The Lighthouse by P.D. James

The Lighthouse
A novel by P.D. James
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2005

On a privately-owned island off the coast of Cornwall, England, a man's body is discovered hanging from a lighthouse railing. Was it murder? A suicide? An accident? That's what Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team at New Scotland Yard must determine in this slow-paced and carefully-plotted crime novel by P.D. James.

As a straight-up whodunnit, The Lighthouse is a solid work of fiction by one of the world's renowned crime novelists. James (1920 - 2014) methodically builds suspense and moves the action forward with studied calmness and surgical-like precision.

At first glance, Combe Island appears haunting and mysterious, as Dalgliesh and his colleagues arrive by helicopter to investigate the death of Nathan Oliver, a popular novelist and infrequent resident of the island who has come here for rest and relaxation. James writes:
"The middle of the island was a multicoloured scrubland with clutches of bushes and a few copses of spindly trees crossed by track so faint that they looked like the spoor of animals. The island did indeed look inviolate; no beaches, no receding lace of foam. The cliffs were taller and more impressive in the north-west where a spur of jagged rocks running out to the sea like broken teeth rose from a turmoil of crashing waves."
The island serves as a retreat for people who want a break from the pressures of everyday life. But the island also has a murky past, and as the story unfolds, James reveals the various histories and relationships among the main players (inhabitants and visitors alike), dropping clues and sprinkling details in a gradual building of suspense. It's up to Dalgliesh to discover how the island's history connects with the death of Nathan Oliver.

As with all good crime fiction, James introduces several characters who serve as possible suspects. There's bad blood between Oliver and a prominent animal researcher (Mark Yelland), who happens to be visiting the island when Oliver's death occurs; there's the boyfriend of Oliver's daughter whose life would be happier with Oliver out of the picture; and a shadowy figure named Jago, a resident boatman who bears a decades-long grievance involving Oliver's father.

The story unfolds with systematic thoroughness. But Dalgliesh's ability to lead the investigation is compromised when he is suddenly sidelined with a serious illness, and so the role of lead detective falls to his young colleague, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin. Can Miskin overcome her own fears and insecurities and solve the case before the local authorities are called in? The decisions she makes now will have a bearing on her career with Scotland Yard. Miskin and her colleague, Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith race against the clock for answers before the island guests start leaving and outside help steps in.

James builds the story to a fairly satisfying conclusion, although I was somewhat surprised at how abruptly the disparate pieces of this mystery are tidily pieced together within a few paragraphs. I haven't read enough P. D. James to know if this kind rapid-fire resolution is consistent in her fiction.

Nonetheless, the writing, the characterization, the plot twists and the slow deliberate pacing of The Lighthouse made for a satisfying read, and together these ingredients have whetted my appetite for more of P. D. James's fiction featuring Adam Dalgliesh.

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