This is apparently the most recent of the Dalgliesh mysteries by P.D. James, although I accidentally read it before The Lighthouse (to be reviewed later). No biggie. It's one of the more interesting mysteries I've yet to come across, although I'll admit upfront that the solution to the mystery was something of a letdown. I'll get to that later.
Rhoda Gradwyn is a renowned journalist who has built her career on exposing the secrets of others, but she has a problem of her own that she is reluctant to discuss: as a child she was disfigured when her drunken father threw a broken bottle at her and cut open her face. The scar has always been a part of her, and at the age of forty-seven she finally decides to undergo a plastic surgery procedure to have it removed, "because she doesn't need it anymore," as she says.
Rhoda seeks out the equally renowned plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell to complete the procedure, a decision which takes her to Chandler-Powell's private surgery location of Cheverell Manor. The procedure goes well; the surgeon does excellent work; and then the night after Rhoda's surgery, someone strangles her in her bed as she is recovering.
The crime is brutal, and the private nature of the location means that Dalgliesh is called in once more to deal with the delicate nature of the situation. Along the way, Dalgliesh uncovers a number of tangles that make the crime much more complex than it actually was. What is more, Dalgliesh's investigation takes him back in time as he attempts to sort through events from a few decades back and even a few centuries back. As I mentioned above, the climax ultimately feels a little anti-climactic. The perpetrator ends up being the most likely suspect: the real mystery is the motive, although I tend to agree with Dorothy L. Sayers (and, through her, Lord Peter Wimsey) that motive really doesn't mean anything. People can be completely guilty of a crime without a clear motive, nor does motive make a person guilty. But that's beside the point. The mystery is still solved, and frankly somewhat less problematically than in some of the other Dalgliesh novels.
Given my most recent review of a James mystery, I thought I should point out something else I found. In researching The Private Patient, I discovered that other reviewers have found a pattern in James that I also noticed: the victim of the crime tend to be "unpleasant" and in many instances unlikeable. Whew! I'm glad to discover that I'm not the only one who saw that. And in this case, Rhoda Gradwyn is pretty unpleasant. Her unfortunate situation aside, she is bitter, sardonic, and altogether the sort of person you'd leave off the list of birthday party guests. I doubt she'd mind.
The author of this review also notes that this story appears to be Dalgliesh's "swansong." I didn't see that, frankly (although I saw it more in The Lighthouse, which is also a better book). Nor is The Private Patient necessarily the best Dalgliesh mystery that James has written. But it's very good and (I think) better than Death in Holy Orders, so if you have the choice go for this one first.
Year of publication: 2008
Number of pages: 368