18 Jan 2006
On a small island resort off the southwest coast of England, a place where the celebrated and accomplished can rest in near-isolation, a famous novelist is found hanging from the top of a lighthouse in the morning. Instead of letting the local officials investigate, the notoriety of the death demands more, and by afternoon, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his assistants helicopter in from London to investigate. Now that’s service for you.
P.D. James’ novels combine elements of the classic mystery with in-depth examinations of character and incident found in literary novels. In “The Lighthouse,” the lives and concerns of the police officers mean as much to the story as the stories behind the victims and the suspects. To the poetry-writing Dalgliesh, this mean fretting not only about the case, but about the resolution of his relationship with Emma Lavenham, to whom he proposed by letter in James’ previous novel “The Murder Room.”
So there’s no shortage of suspects for Dalgliesh to investigate. Oliver tried to evict the old woman who lives with her menacing butler, wrote his next novel using the character of a scientist pressured by a failing marriage and animal-rights groups, and did something particularly nasty to the former priest who left the church after being caught drunk one too many times. In introducing each character, James spins passage after well-written passage, dissecting their character, faults and dreams in a way they, being very, very British, would never acknowledge or even hint at publicly.
Yet, I cannot like “The Lighthouse.” Respect the writing, yes, admire certain passages when her characters reflect on death and love, even approve of the way she structures the mystery and its solution. But James’ intense prose is rarely relieved by a change in pace. The characters whose lives and conflicts are minutely described in the beginning are hastily resolved at the end.
But against that stands the fictional island of Combe, “multicoloured and as sharply defined as a coloured photograph, its silver granite cliffs towering from a white boiling of foam.” Its rocky, windswept shore, charming old cottages and the prospect of spending one’s days in peace and tranquility is a seductive prospect. While I wouldn’t put “The Lighthouse” among James’ best, it can be a pleasant place to stay for awhile.
Genre: 13 James plays fair with the reader in this traditional mystery, scattering the few clues needed to solve the story throughout and tying it all up in the end.
Realism: 14 James’ worlds are vivid if limited. All the major characters are very well-educated, very well-off, and very, very English. They’re also emotionally repressed, emotionally damaged and very near humorless.
Character: 11 “The Lighthouse” begins by delineating the major characters, drops their development when Dalgliesh and company arrive on the island, then hurriedly wraps things up at the end. One beautifully wrought section describing a rock climb by one of the officers (it begins on page 288 of the U.S. hardcover edition) stands out, and contrasts the sometimes tedious descriptions found in the rest of the book.
Setting: 14 The fictional island of Combe is vividly portrayed, and even with murder in the salt-scented air, diving into this book will seem like a vacation.
Theme: 8 What theme?
Style: 13 I have a weakness for well-written stories, and while I can admire how she wrote her story, what she describes is not very engaging. Individual chapters and passages can be admired, but a whole book of them has the feeling that I’m chewing rubber.
What does these numbers mean?