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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Private Patient


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To purchase The Private Patient

Title: The Private Patient
Author: P.D.James
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 352 pages
Availability: The Private Patient - US
The Private Patient - UK
The Private Patient - Canada
The Private Patient - India
Une mort esthétique - France
Ein makelloser Tod - Deutschland
La paziente privata - Italia
Muerte en la clínica privada - España
  • An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine writing, and -- once it gets going -- a solid mystery

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 30/8/2008 M. John Harrison
The LA Times . 22/11/2008 Nicholas A. Basbanes
New Statesman . 21/8/2008 Simon Akam
The NY Times . 19/11/2008 Janet Maslin
The Observer B- 7/9/2008 Louise France
Sunday Times . 31/8/2008 Penny Perrick
The Telegraph B+ 7/9/2008 David Robson
The Times A- 30/8/2008 Marcel Berlins

  Review Consensus:

  Not her best, but still good -- and well-written

  From the Reviews:
  • "For most of the novel you wish someone would murder the lot of them. Then, at the very end, with the crime almost solved and the unsolveability of human beings confirmed, something strange happens. Baroness James, one of Europe's most distinguished mystery novelists, renews her interest in her own book. Scenes and characters leap into focus, dialogue livens, and a weirdly affectionate final act plays itself out." - M. John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "All of the traditional conventions of the crime novel, moreover, are present, not least among them a circle of suspects who each possess motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime. Nearly a hundred pages before the author brings Dalgliesh into the story, she introduces us to each of them" - Nicholas A. Basbanes, The Los Angeles Times

  • "And, as such a story, this is one that proceeds with aplomb and panache. The intricately drawn plot unfolds in clear, stylish prose against a London of mullioned windows and a Dorset of standing stones and laurel bushes. The knowledge, legal and forensic, that the reader requires to stay abreast of events is passed on gently, too, with the didacticism often elegantly clad in dialogue. Yet it seems that the real suspect to be cross-examined in this novel is not any one of the myriad potential murderers, but rather the status of detective fiction itself." - Simon Akam, New Statesman

  • "All of this goes to show that Ms. James sets her mystery on comfortably familiar terrain and makes the most of its atmospherics. But the plotting of The Private Patient is not up to this author’s diabolical best. True, the book’s array of red herrings is choice. And its characters have ample motives and opportunities to do wrong." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "By the time you reach the final line, you may decide that the conclusion to this, the 88-year-old crime writer's 16th thriller, is flawed, but there is a quality to the writing that makes The Private Patient a pleasure to read, nevertheless. (...) The story rattles along, propelled, as always, by James's eloquent way with words. Love in all its guises, both healing and destructive, is her theme. But in the end, too many characters drift into the margins." - Louise France, The Observer

  • "The odd murder aside, this is a book about the way we live now. Not for the first time, PD James depicts a contemporary Britain where it is hardly possible for anyone to be happy, such is the level of class warfare and the daily desperation brought about by the general ungraciousness of this dystopian island." - Penny Perrick, Sunday Times

  • "In terms of plotting, The Private Patient is only moderately gripping. But the characterisation, the accretion of detail, the overarching humanity is as impressive as ever." - David Robson, The Telegraph

  • "Certainly The Private Patient shows no signs of author fatigue. There is just one possible indication -- which I will not reveal for fear of spoiling your enjoyment -- that this fourteenth appearance by the Scotland Yard sage is destined to be his swansong. But the formula is no different from most in the Dalgliesh series; the quality is averagely excellent James, although not among her best three or four." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

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 Private Patient takes a while to get going, as P.D.James takes her time setting her stage -- here essentially Cheverell Manor ("regarded as one of the loveliest Tudor manor houses in England"), a property where plastic surgeon Chandler-Powell treats some of his patients. There is not a huge staff there, but from a surgical assistant to nurses and household staff there is a colourful cast of characters, and they are patiently introduced, each shown in their roles (and some clearly at some crossroads in their lives) as events unfold that lead inexorably (as the book's opening sentence already warns) to murder.
       The first sentence of the book introduces the patient of the title, Rhoda Gradwyn, and reveals that she is going to be killed. An investigative reporter, she has had a noticeable scar on her face from a childhood incident and is now ready to be done with it (or at least that's her (plausible/cover) story). Chandler-Powell is one of the finest men in his field, and she can afford the cost of such an operation -- the sort of exclusive treatment where patients even go to visit the manor a few weeks beforehand, to see what awaits them and get a feel for the place.
       But, of course, she is also an investigative reporter -- and at least one person at the manor is not happy about that:

She's an investigative journalist, one of the worst kind. She sniffs out gossip like a pig with truffles. She makes it her job to discover things about other people which give them distress or pain, or worse, and would titillate the great British public if they became known. She sells secrets for money.
       And, of course, it turns out there are quite few secrets among those at the manor ..... Still, even this warning voice claims: "I'm not proposing to take a kitchen knife to her" ... but then she's not the only who fantasizes about a patient's death. After all, the scandal would make it impossible for Chandler-Powell to continue business as usual there, and there are some who wouldn't mind seeing that sort of comeuppance for the haughty doctor.
       Eventually Gradwyn gets her operation, and soon enough all the good work is undone when she is throttled in her bed. The circumstances strongly suggest a close-to-locked-room mystery, as it is unlikely any outsider could been involved, which limits the number of suspects. But they don't seem like particularly likely suspects, at least not until their various secrets come out into the open .....
       Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his Special Investigation Squad are called to the case -- rather surprisingly, since this isn't really their patch. But the orders come from on very high (though, as it turns out, it's a pretty feeble excuse that brings them on the case). Dalgliesh doesn't know what the future holds -- with the future of his SIS itself in constant doubt -- except as regards his love- and domestic-life, since his plans to marry Emma Lavenham are close to fruition. Of course, once he's called to the case he leaves her behind and they remain more or less out of touch (though she does pop up once or twice along the way again), his focus entirely on the murder at hand.
       D.I. Kate Miskin, whose own love-life collapsed a few months back, and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith are on the case with Dalgliesh once again, and the police procedural part of the novel then begins. Here, too, James takes her time, but once things get rolling -- once those first secrets are uncovered -- The Private Patient, which up to that point had been a finely drawn and very well-written but almost aimless set of character portraits and atmosphere, becomes a very solid mystery indeed. It turns out there are more connexions to Gradwyn than was previously acknowledged, and that some of her articles may well have upset some of those present. Add in the fact that at least one person there has killed before, then toss in yet another body and it all comes together fairly nicely.
       There are a variety of red herrings, and a few rather convenient coincidences help lead to the final turn of events, but James redeems that by leaving just enough uncertainty about guilt and innocence and truth. Populated by rather miserable characters and limited relationships -- among the healthiest is that of Dalgliesh and Emma, but they're essentially kept apart and out of touch for the duration -- much of The Private Patient is also a very bleak novel -- only for it to suddenly brighten at the end, not only with the Dalgliesh-nuptials, but with Miskin paired off again and even finding a happy and hopeful end at the manor.
       James writes with an ease and facility that is a joy to behold, but for a while in The Private Patient there's almost too much of this finely-observed detail and these well-turned insights and descriptions. It is also a rather crowded field, and with the perspective constantly shifting from one person to the next the picture can get rather blurred. Murder and investigation helps focus her (and the reader's) attention and things move more smoothly once the killing is done, but it does take a while to reach that point. The various trails also are a bit messy, but then that well might be the case in a case of actual murder -- though the number of coincidence here seems rather on the high side. Still, a good, solid mystery.

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The Private Patient: 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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© 2008-2014 the complete review

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