The Lighthouse by P.D. James offers an engrossing read, with excellently drawn characters, an intriguing isolated island, and a difficult to solve murder. Although I think James copped out with the solution to the crime (more on that later – spoiler warning!), her characters evolve and we are kept turning the pages to find out “who dun it.” You can’t ask for more than that with a mystery novel.
The Lighthouse is the latest in her Adam Dalgliesh series. We’re back with AD, as he’s called, Inspector Kate Miskin and Benton-Smith, another man on the force. Benton-Smith takes the place of Piers, who is now moved to a different unit; good for Kate, because she’s finally sleeping with him, and the budding romance takes her one step further into character development. It’s believable plot twist and one that I cheered, because I have always liked James’ character and want her to be happy. I think that’s the sign of a well drawn character. When we want the evil doer to get his comeuppance, or when we want one of the characters to achieve their heart’s desire, and we are rooting for them, they’ve become so real to us that they are like our friends, family and acquaintances. We want them to be happy and they are just words on paper, but no matter; they are real to us.
This mystery focuses on a writer named Nathan Oliver. He sounds like a cold, cruel megalomaniac. He’s brilliant but cannot feel; he treats people like things. His only child, a daughter, is desperate to escape her role as Daddy’s personal secretary. She has an affair with his personal editorial assistant, and they’re both prime suspects when Oliver turns up murdered. He wasn’t happy to find the pair entwined in a naked embrace in a hidden cover on the beach. Although they tell him they’re engaged to be married, Daddy is most certainly Not Happy, but only because he’s losing two of his best workers and won’t be able to control them anymore. As a reader, I ended up loathing Nathan Oliver. Having no pity for the murder victim didn’t make me want them to not to solve the murder, but you can’t really like this guy. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so when he turns up dead, you’re just sort of shrugging like, “Okay, it finally happened.” Too many people want him gone from their lives.
The action takes place on a fictional island called Combe, and I think Combe turned into a character, too. It’s supposed to be a retreat for the super wealthy or super famous. They can go to the island for R & R without the paparazzi or body guards. At the time the murder takes place, the guests on the island include Oliver, his daughter and his personal assistant; two scientists who run an animal testing facility that’s always under threat from extremists; a permanent resident of the island, an elderly lady and her servant; an ex-Anglican priest turn alcoholic turned assistant to the island’s attorney. There’s a fellow who returned with his mother, an island residents, and stayed on after her death. There’s a disgraced physician and his saucy nurse-wife. There’s a gay tough guy named Jago who runs the boat to and from the mainland; Millie, a streetwise girl who latched onto Jago and who he brought to the island as a servant; and of course, the cook, housekeeper, and other staff.
The island itself is remote. It sounds from the author’s descriptions like you’d want to just stay in one of the cottages and star gaze for hours on end. It’s idyllic. I’d like to live there permanently if you could guarantee internet access.
When Oliver turns up hanging from the lighthouse by an oddly fashioned noose, it’s at first thought to be suicide. Later, the detectives realize that the noose isn’t the cause of death; he was strangled first and the body staged to look like a hanging.
The plot takes the predictable mystery novel turns, with the detectives analyzing motives, questioning suspects and all of that. Here’s where I think PD James, for all her greatness, took a turn for the worse. During the course of the novel, one of the suspects falls ill with SARS, a severe respiratory disease. Dalgliesh, the lead detective, also contracts the disease. So he’s up in the infirmary deathly ill while Kate has to take over the investigation. Now all of this would be fine and interesting, except that at the ninth hour, like the old deus ex machina from the Greek dramas, Dalgliesh wakes up from his high fever, solves the mystery, and communicates it to Kate. It felt contrived, and it felt like an author cop out. Why bother taking Dalgliesh out of the picture, show us Kate’s rising confidence in her detective abilities, and then suddenly take the solution out of her hands? It didn’t make sense and that’s what I meant by the ending wasn’t great. The murderer and the death of an innocent man on the island, a second and more sympathetic character, also didn’t feel right. I didn’t find many clues at all pointing to the eventual revelation of the murderer, and as I thought about the book this morning, the second murdered man also didn’t make much sense. These also felt contrived, as if James realized, “Oliver wasn’t very sympathetic; but this man is, so I’ll have him killed too.”
All in all, The Lighthouse was an engrossing read. I looked forward to my time spent each evening reading the novel, and eagerly look forward to my next dive into PD James’ world of British detective Adam Dalgliesh.