I really enjoyed this story. I don't know if it was the time (lunchtime), the setting (my office during office hours), or the book itself, but this one kept me flipping the pages in a hurry. I think I read the first one hundred pages in a single sitting, because I just couldn't put it down.
Famous -- not to mention highly persnickety and cantankerous -- author Nathan Oliver has been discovered dead, hanging off the deck rail of the lighthouse on Combe Island. And because Combe Island is itself a private location, set aside for heads of state who need a break from the stresses of work and life, Dalgliesh is called in to handle the delicacy of the crime.
The setting of the island makes the crime easier to solve in some ways, and spectacular in others. The island is completely isolated, and no one enters or leaves without a number of other people knowing. As a result, Dalgliesh has a controlled number of suspects. The real issue is trying to figure out who had the most opportunity and the most motive. (Once again, we get motive again, although I'll look past it since this one is pretty good.) And just as Dalgliesh is making headway, a very unlikely danger puts a halt to his own investigation and leaves it in the hands of his subordinates. In a startling moment of clarity, though, Dalgliesh is still the one who solves the crime, and in a way that really works for me. I came across a quote recently that claimed the solution to a mystery novel should always be "inevitable." In other words, all of the clues should be there: they should just be so confusing as to make the solution tangled until the main character sorts through them and re-assembles them correctly. This is exactly what happens in the case of The Lighthouse. It's all there. It just turns out that the details can't be assembled clearly without a little imagination, which Dalgliesh fortunately has.
I'm not alone in thinking this is one of the better James mystery in some time, and it's definitely better than The Private Patient. It just pulls together better, and it flows more clearly. The extra elements -- those red herrings that are present in almost every mystery -- fit into this story more clearly and don't feel as irrelevant. Also, James has enough sense to make the inevitable passing (if unspoken) reference to Virginia Woolf, which is essential in a story with a title such as this. While this one might not be a "swansong" for James, but she can be proud to add this one to her list of final accomplishments.
On a totally irrelevant note, as I read this book during my office hours, I tried to be as discrete as possible. (You know, reading mysteries when I should be looking productive by creating Blackboard applications or grading papers...) At one point, though, I had to fetch the professor who shares the office for a phone call and accidentally left the book -- cover up -- on the desk by the phone. As she was on the phone, she gestured toward the book, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up.
Apparently, she's a James fan as well. Needless to say, I don't feel so bad about reading P.D. James during office hours.
Year of publication: 2005
Number of pages: 352