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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Lighthouse


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To purchase The Lighthouse

Title: The Lighthouse
Author: P.D.James
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 335 pages
Availability: The Lighthouse - US
The Lighthouse - UK
The Lighthouse - Canada
The Lighthouse - India
Le Phare - France
Wo Licht und Schatten ist - Deutschland
Brividi di morte per l'ispettore Dalgliesh - Italia
El faro - España
  • An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, satisfying procedural

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 1/11/2005 Susanna Yager
The Guardian . 29/10/2005 Jessica Mann
The Independent . 25/11/2005 Frances Fyfield
The NY Times . 1/12/2005 Michiko Kakutani
The Observer . 13/11/2005 Peter Guttridge
Scotland on Sunday . 16/10/2005 Tom Adair
The Spectator A 1/10/2005 Susan Hill
Sunday Telegraph . 30/10/2005 Rachel Simhon
Sunday Times A+ 9/10/2005 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
The Times . 1/10/2005 Sally Vickers
TLS . 7/10/2005 Ruth Morse

  Review Consensus:

  Many very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "There isn't a great deal of detecting. Denied forensic help in order to maintain secrecy, the team can do little more than ask questions, but we see the suspects through the eyes of all three detectives, which creates a picture in layers, to great effect. (...) The Lighthouse is a stylistic pleasure, with minutely observed characters and immaculately structured plotting, and shows once again that P.D. James is one of the most elegant writers in any genre of fiction." - Susanna Yager, Daily Telegraph

  • "Of course Dalgleish always gets his man or woman in the end, and the culprit is usually the least likely person. So far, so traditional. But James uses the familiar framework to build a complicated structure of arguments and insights." - Jessica Mann, The Guardian

  • "The Lighthouse is too rooted in genre conventions to count originality as its strong suit. But it has deviousness to burn, and it also offers other enticements. (...) (I)t is a sturdy installment in a well-honed series" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Dalgliesh arrives on the island with emotional problems. In consequence, much of the investigation falls to Miskin and Benton-Smith, probably the strongest characters. However, the considerable pleasures of this novel come more from the plotting, the setting and the unhurried unravelling of the mystery." - Peter Guttridge, The Observer

  • "If The Lighthouse feels a tad less focused than most of her 16 previous crime tales, it is more to do with Dalgliesh's presiding presence being sidelined, and less the fault of the writing itself -- which is, as ever, reliably stylish. In the end, though, the test of a mystery is its power to engage and surprise. By James's own standards, this one hiccups to a less than thrilling stop." - Tom Adair, Scotland on Sunday

  • "The Lighthouse is the Baroness on top form and you will love it. I guessed the identity of the murderer early on. I was wrong. I also guessed that no good was going to come out of Adam Dalglieshís tormented love life. Wrong again." - Susan Hill, The Spectator

  • "With the same combination of detachment and sympathy that she gives Dalgliesh, James examines the psychological impulse that leads a man to exercise ruthless control over others; or another to allow the guilt of one failure to make him forever fearful; or another to flee one safe shelter for the infinitely safer world of Combe." - Rachel Simhon, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Lighthouse presents a world in which pain is far too pervasive to be eradicated by a single arrest. The novel is exciting (.....) And the plot amply delivers the expected satisfactions of an intricate puzzle adroitly solved. But these pleasures are subsidiary to those afforded by Jamesís sensibility, which transforms the squalor and pettiness of crime into the grandeur of desolation." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Sunday Times

  • "A high level of literacy among her characters, and readers, is a hallmark of a P. D. James novel, but itís the love life that intrigues us." - Sally Vickers, The Times

  • "Probably not since Chesterton, and certainly not since G.K.Chesterton, has as a serious religious writer as P.D.James exploited a popular genre to convey the Christian questions of belief, prayer and moral dignity." - Ruth Morse, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lighthouse is a P.D.James mystery that again features Commander Adam Dalgliesh, ready, it seems, to settle down with Emma Lavenham, a bit worried about growing old -- and particularly concerned that he might be becoming "one more bureaucrat" rather than doing the detective-work that he's meant for. Thank god for a convenient murder !
       The murder is of an author, Nathan Oliver, "acknowledged to be one of the world's greatest novelists", a modern Henry James. He's most acclaimed for how realistic and precise his descriptions of his characters and what happens to them are -- but it's also a character flaw. As his secretary-cum-editor explains:

He's a conduit. Emotion flows through him. He can describe, but he can't feel, not for other people.
       Indeed, Oliver is a great user of people, and not a very nice guy. Not everyone is willing to acknowledge it, but there's almost no one around who regrets his death.
       As significant as the victim is the locale of the murder, Combe Island, a private get-away where important figures are common. One reason Dalgliesh is dispatched there is because the Prime Minister wants to use it in a few month's time, and it wouldn't do for there to be any security or other concerns. It's hard to reach -- there's almost nowhere to land a boat, and helicopters are the preferred method of travel -- safe, and quiet. Guests who want to get away from it all really can.
       There's a motley permanent staff that includes a doctor and priest (both having left the mainland in semi-disgrace), as well as a young waif named Millie that they've taken in for the time being. Oliver was born on the island, and according to the terms of the island's trust, has the right to come whenever he wants -- which he does quarterly, along with his daughter, Miranda, and his editor-lackey, Dennis Tremlett. Among the other guests is a scientist at a laboratory that does animal-testing (and gets lots of flak for it).
       In short order, most of the people on the island have a motive for murder: Miranda and Dennis are in love, and Oliver threatens to cut them off, knowing they have nothing to fall back on. One guest confronts Oliver, angry that the central figure in the writer's next novel is obviously based on him. And Oliver has told the island-administrators that he's planning on moving there fulltime -- and that he wants one of the cottages, in which one of the island's longterm residents is comfortably housed at present. No one wants Oliver around fulltime, but he threatens to change his will, withdrawing his generous bequest to the island if he doesn't get his way. And then there's the helper who loses a blood sample Oliver wanted sent to the mainland: Oliver wants him fired .....
       So Oliver winds up dead, possibly a suicide but more likely a murder, and Adam Dalgliesh is called in. It's a bit inconvenient -- he was planning to spend the weekend with Emma -- but once again P.D.James does everything she can to avoid writing about the two of them actually together, as Emma is again relegated to an entirely peripheral role. Dalgliesh only takes two other officers with him, DI Kate Miskin, and the new man in town (or at least on the team), Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith.
       The island makes for a nice, self-contained locale, and while some comfort themselves with the thought that someone might have snuck in and done the dirty deed, it's pretty clear that there's a murderer among them. When SARS fells one of the islanders and a more (and less) voluntary quarantine is imposed the island's isolation helps add to the sense of menace and concern. Especially as a second person turns up murdered .....
       Adam Dalgliesh has good instincts, but above all he's methodical, and The Lighthouse is a procedural. In leisurely (and expert) fashion James sets the stage and introduces the actors, and then lets the detectives get to work. There are motives galore, and there are hidden facts that get uncovered which paint an even more complex picture. Interestingly, many of the motives remain hidden from the police: quite a few people get away with not being entirely forthright (and a few even with some lies).
       A different sort of complication arises when Dalgliesh himself becomes incapacitated with SARS, and Kate Miskin takes over the reins. Still, it's 'an Adam Dalgliesh mystery' and even on his sick-bed he's the man who connects the most important dots.
       The Lighthouse is a very satisfying read, especially in its build-up. James has a nice touch in presenting the different characters, including the familiar police officers possibly moving on to new stages in their lives. There's a bit much history a few of them (including Oliver) are burdened with, but it does make for a few decent twists along the way.
       Oddly, it's Dalgliesh himself that proves a bit problematic. He's still a commanding figure, but there are considerable concerns -- first imagined, then real -- about his health and advancing age. James putting him to one side as the murder inquiry winds up, as well as her inability to write a scene with him and Emma together covering more than a page or two leaves one with a sense that she's not quite sure what to do with him. And then there's Dalgliesh-as-poet, a central part of his identity but one that's not really glimpsed either -- aside from the alarming but otherwise ignored concern raised early on that if he could no longer actively do detective-work:
If this happened, would he any longer be a poet ? Wasn't it the rich soil of a murder investigation, in shared exertion and the prospect of danger, and in the pitiableness of desperate and broken lives that his poetry put out its shoots >
       The reader is never given any evidence -- not necessarily of his poetry, but even just him in any way being a poet -- to judge.
       So James seems a bit unsure of where Dalgliesh is at at the moment -- but one still hopes he'll be hard at work (and happily married) next time 'round.
       A good, enjoyable read.

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The Lighthouse: Reviews: P.D.James: Other books by P.D.James under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Phyllis Dorothy James lived 1920 to 2014. She has written numerous acclaimed mysteries.

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© 2005-2014 the complete review

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