An island haunted by death comes alive

Review Mystery



The Lighthouse

P.D. James

Alfred A. Knopf / 334 pages

For Phyllis Dorothy James, the stately, silver-haired British lady who created Scotland Yard's poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, setting has always played the starring role in her murder mysteries, and The Lighthouse, 13th in the Dalgliesh series, is perhaps the finest example.

The windswept, fictitious island of Combe, just off the coast of Cornwall, is a private island with a bloodstained past that offers solitude and security for the great and powerful who seek to put down their burdens for a brief respite.

AD, as he is privately known to his devoted subordinates, is called to the island when a novelist considered "worthy of the Nobel Prize" is found hanged from the island's picturesque but abandoned lighthouse. Was it suicide? Or murder?

The island, about which P.D. James writes in lovely, descriptive passages, is occupied by a handful of noteworthy guests who are attended by a handful of staff members dedicated to the island's mission of privacy.

Visitors and staff alike have come to the island to escape some secret turmoil, and all of them have a motive for killing the arrogant, belligerent and boorish Nathan Oliver, a victim no one mourns.

Among the guests are Oliver's slavish daughter Miranda, who has found love in middle age only to have her father forbid it; his secretary, whose editing skills may have eclipsed Oliver's writing gifts; the medical researcher who has come to the island to escape animal rights activists and whom Oliver used as a model for a despicable character in one of his books; and a German doctor who wants to know what Oliver may know about the wartime death of the doctor's father.

Among the staff is a defrocked, alcoholic Anglican priest whom Oliver exploited, as well as the irascible 80-year-old woman whose family owned the island and whom Oliver was demanding to displace as the only permanent resident. (With her flinty candor, she may be the stand-in for James.)

Dalgliesh's investigation is complicated when one of the guests is found to be infected with SARS and the island is quarantined, increasing its isolation. And then there is a second death, this one certainly a murder.

Kate Miskin, Dalgliesh's long-time assistant, who harbors a longtime crush on her boss, takes matters in hand when AD is felled by SARS as well. Her bottled ambition is unleashed, and she is heroic in pursuit of the suspect, but AD comes through in the end, solving the mystery while in a fever dream.

Miskin and AD both leave lovers suspended in time to answer the call of the Home Office and resolve the uncertainty of Oliver's death before the press gets wind of it and eliminates the island as a place for some super-secret gathering of world leaders.

Miskin's lover may be a surprise to the faithful. But Dalgliesh has had to leave the arms of Emma Lavenham, whom he met in the pages of Death in Holy Orders. Their love is new and uncertain. Nevertheless, it appears that James may be ready to marry our hero off.

The island setting is a conventional artifice in mysteries. It serves to limit the suspects from the outside world and increase the tension among the characters - after all, the murderer is still among them.

But this is more than a game of Clue. James is known for her insights into the hearts of her characters and for gracefully depicting their painful humanity. She is also old-fashioned, and genteel, in her moral judgments. The motive for this murder is condemned with the poetry of W.H. Auden:

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

In the end, our heroes leave Combe knowing they can never return. It would violate the family trust that governs the island and which requires its guest be of elite standing. But they leave changed. The period of quarantine after the murders have been solved has refreshed their views of their futures. Only the island itself is unchanged by the tumult.

James, who is in her middle-80s, is at the height of her writing powers in describing this craggy bit of rock off England's coast so thoroughly that you can feel the wind against your face and the scrubland brush against your boots.

Like Dalgliesh and Miskin, you will wish you could return.

Susan Reimer is a Sun columnist.

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