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The Private Patient
By P. D. James

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The Private Patient

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The Private Patient
By P. D. James
Random House Large Print, 2008, 576 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7393-2820-0
Genre: Mystery

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 17, 2009

P. D. James is the queen of mystery writers. Her Adam Dalgliesh thrillers are engrossing stories of murder and police detection and superb literature. She has succeeded where other authors have failed. Many of their mysteries are best sellers and certainly engrossing reads, but the English author P.D. James has done this and created a literary volume as well.

The Private Patient is a tale of a woman who was disfigured as a child by her drunken father who slashed her check in anger with a broken bottle, leaving a large and deep disfiguring scar. She made no attempt to remove the scar until she struck some success as an investigating reporter. Now after 34 years Rhoda Gradwyn sought out the renowned surgeon Chandler-Powell to remove the scar. The surgeon asks why she wants the surgery now after so many years. She curiously replies, "Because I no longer have need of it."

She is offered the surgery in the surgeon's London suite or in his stunning suburban retreat. She opts for the second, and is strangled there. Subsequently, there is another murder, an attempted murder, and a suicide.

James is a master of setting scenes and delineating the inner mind of her characters. She spends, for example, close to a hundred pages at the outset of her drama depicting her people, their life, desires and foibles. These set pieces are interesting in themselves because of the literary style of presentation and the unique often unexpected and curious details, and help develop the novel's tension. They do not detract the reader's interest from the murder mystery, but further that interest and hold it firm.

Even the murder scene is written with this literary engrossing skill, as seen in the following part of a much larger murder setting. Miss Gradwyn is lying in bed after the operation.
As she lay rigid, the pale figure, white-clad and masked, was at her bedside. Arms moved above her head in a ritual gesture like an obscene parody of a benediction. With an effort she tried to struggle up - the bedclothes seemed suddenly to weigh her down - and stretched out a hand for the bell pull and the lamp. The bell pull wasn't there. Her hand found the light switch and clicked it on, but there was no light. Someone must have hooked the bell pull out of reach and taken the bulb from the lamp. She didn't cry out. All those early years of self-control against betraying fear, against finding relief in shouting and yelling, had inhibited her power to scream. And she knew screaming would be ineffective; the dressing made even speech difficult. She struggled to get out of bed but found herself unable to move.
The reader should note the frequent use of poetic alliterations in this paragraph, the frequent repetition of the letter S, as in the next selection describing the reactions of the police to the body of the murder victim, where the letter S stands out more than a half dozen times and the letter P four times in a single sentence, sometimes as a first letter and at other times in the middle or end of a word. "The best pathologists and police officers, standing where they stood now, never lost respect for the dead, a respect born of shared emotions, however temporary, the unspoken recognition of a common humanity, a common end."

Because her novel is more than a murder mystery, she devotes ten pages after the murders are solved to the further development of her characters. One of her characters' thoughts after the resolution of the crimes, the final words of the novel, ties the novel together and demonstrates again the literary qualities of this marvelous book, words we would not expect to find in the genre of mystery novels.
The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth's living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.
P.D. James's mystery raises many questions. Some are aroused by the artistically drawn people, such as: Will Dalgliesh marry his much younger sweetheart? Will his assistant Kate reunite with her boy friend? Will the surgeon's assistant leave his employ and go to Africa? Many questions are evoked by the whodunit itself. These include, of course, who murdered the woman and why? Was the second murder related to the first? Why did Gradwyn want the cosmetic surgery thirty four years after her disfigurement? What did she mean when she said that she has no need any longer for the scar?

James does not answer all of these questions. Ambiguities and obscurities frequently occur in many mystery novels and is the hallmark of good literature. It is as the Argentinean writer Jorge Borges wrote: two people write a book, the author and the reader. In The Private Patient, P. D. James did her part well; no doubt readers will enjoy doing there's.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides; the latest are Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind and Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets. He and Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner are the authors of the series of books on the Aramaic translation of the Torah entitled Onkelos on the Torah. The fourth on Numbers has just been published.


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