The Private Patient – P. D. James

Set in a private hospital, surrounded by the Dorset countryside and a Neolithic stone circle, The Private Patient reads like an Agatha Christie novel of sorts. It has everything that we might associate with the Golden Age of Crime; a couple of brutal murders, a hugely evocative setting, and a cabaret of varied suspects. The story follows Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, who travels to Cheverell Manor to have a rather grizzly scar removed from her face and winds up throttled in her room. The case is taken on, somewhat unwillingly, by Adam Dalgliesh (one of James’ mainstay detectives) and we are led down a dark path where everyone is a suspect and, when another is murdered, potentially a victim. With the undertones of a witch burning that occurred at the stone circle in the 17th century, the reader is promised a whirlwind mystery that will leave you shocked at the end.

And to a certain extent it did and, yet in quite another way, it was the most obvious solution to what had been set out as a baffling crime. As I picked my way through the story, it occurred to me that the main reason why I wasn’t quite seeing clearly through all the fog of the mystery was because there was very little to distinguish between the many characters occupying the manor at the time. In fact, when the final reveal came, I found myself less shocked by the identity of the murderer and more stumped about which of the characters it actually was.

And I think this is where this novel stumbles a little. I made the mistake of reading it over the course of several sittings, but it occurs to me that, with its many hard to distinguish characters, it would have been wiser for me to read all in one go. In addition to this, I found it very hard to really believe in the characters due to the odd way in which everyone spoke. In this novel, it almost felt as though characters were not really talking to each other in conversational styles, but were communicating by some odd form of monologues.

That being said, the authors’ attention to detail is remarkable and I found it very easy to immerse myself in the world that had been created.  Admittedly it took a fair amount of time for the story to get going as it spent the first hundred odd pages of the book detailing the life of the victim as she prepared to have her treatment. In that respect, my only real criticism is that the story could have dealt with the backstory (for that is essentially what it is) a little quicker or not at all, given that a lot of the facts are later eluded to by other characters in the story.

Generally speaking though, it is a relatively lively and satisfying read, but one that I do recommend is conducted in as few sittings as possible to avoid confusion. Four out of five stars.

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