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Classic English mystery, and is it also a goodbye?

Nicholas A. Basbanes' latest book is "A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008."

It is a mark of consummate skill and delicious irony that P. D. James audaciously opens “The Private Patient,” her 14th novel to feature Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, with this compelling sentence: “On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.”

Straightaway, the identity of the hapless victim is furnished, along with several salient details that alert the reader to the kind of closed environment that is so important an element in a classic English mystery, especially one crafted by the woman known to countless admirers around the world as the Queen of Crime, the 88-year-old one-time civil servant who in 1991 was designated Baroness James of Holland Park by Queen Elizabeth II.

The person who we immediately know is soon to join the ranks of the departed -- the “private patient” of the title -- is a London investigative journalist of some notoriety, a woman respected as a capable professional but not one without the baggage of having made a few enemies over the years. She’s made several, in fact, who might delight in the news of her demise. Somewhat problematic also is the question as to why Gradwyn decides at this stage of her life to have a facial scar inflicted on her 34 years earlier by an abusive father removed by Dr. George Chandler-Powell; she tells the renowned surgeon enigmatically it is because “I no longer have need of it.”

Instead of having the procedure performed in London, however, she has chosen instead to check into Cheverell Manor, a historic country residence of understated opulence converted by Chandler-Powell a few years earlier into a private clinic for the use of his wealthiest clients. The operation successfully completed, Gradwyn is found in her bed the following morning, dead by means of “manual asphyxiation.” The manor’s location in the coastal county of Dorset -- the setting, by the way, for the richly atmospheric novels of native son Thomas Hardy -- is ideally suited to the fiction of P. D. James, one where a tightly confined place of uncommon curiosity becomes as much a character in the unfolding drama as the human beings that emerge so fully from her imagination.

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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: the young couple who serve as resident chefs; the general administrator whose family once owned the property; an eccentric gardener accustomed to speaking his mind; a former governess who manages the office; a young surgical assistant about to leave for another position in Africa; his aloof sister who helps in the office and does not suffer fools gladly; a quiet young woman with a guarded past who works as a domestic in the household, and, of course, the doctor himself.

James boldly assembles the staff together in a single room -- the elegant library, no less -- for an introductory meeting with Commander Dalgliesh of the Special Investigation Squad and his able assistants, Det. Inspector Kate Miskin and Det. Sgt. Francis Benton-Smith. In yet another bow to her chosen genre, there is the matter of a disputed will to consider, a cliche in lesser hands, and then there is the matter of a second victim, a London dilettante who recommended Gradwyn to the physician and turns up dead in an abandoned freezer.

Since introducing Adam Dalgliesh 46 years ago in “Cover Her Face,” Phyllis Dorothy James has not been coy about the genuine affection she has for her signature character. It is no surprise, then, that Dalgliesh, a published poet, is never boring, never predictable, always complex. With the arrival of the lovely and brilliant Emma Lavenham into his life in “Death in Holy Orders” (2001), this private, cerebral widower gradually fell in love, proposing marriage finally in “The Lighthouse” (2005); when AD, as his subordinates refer to him, makes his appearance in “The Private Patient,” the two are making plans for their forthcoming wedding.

It gives nothing away to suggest there is a subtle sense of summing up here, the realization of a job well done. There is talk that the elite police unit may be disbanded, and Dalgliesh himself muses that this might be his final investigation. “Perhaps it’s arrogant,” the commander reminds Benton-Smith during a moment of introspection, “this need to know the truth,” though that little misgiving does not deter him from sorting through the abundance of clues and false leads to surprise us all once again by revealing the identity of the killer.

In a manner that suggests the closing scenes of a Shakespearean romantic comedy, there is a merry celebration in the final pages that gathers a few friends and colleagues who figured in earlier Dalgliesh mysteries, including former squad member Piers Tarrant (now happily back together with Kate) -- all united by joyful music, fine food and hopeful good cheer.

So is this, we are left to wonder, the end of a triumphant run? Only James can say for sure. Should the commander reappear between hard covers, we shall all be the richer for it; if not, we will rejoice in having enjoyed so thoroughly the pleasure of his company over these last four decades.


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