Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Private Patient, by P.D. James: audio version

There is always something different about listening to a book as opposed to reading it. I enjoy listening to audio books as I drive around town and especially when I am on a long trip, but the experience is very different from reading one at my leisure, when I can ruminate over a passage or reread a section easily.

I admit that I did not hear - or absorb - every word on this CD set. Certainly I didn't skip any parts, but at times my mind went elsewhere while driving and I missed a bit here or there. Not much, I suspect, but perhaps some sentences that were important.

As is typical with P.D. James' novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, this one starts with the characters central to the plot, in particular with the murder victim herself. And we know right off that she is the one. Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative reporter in her mid-forties, meets with a plastic surgeon, George Chandler-Powell, to have him remove a scar that has been on her face since childhood. She chooses to have the work done at a manor house that has been converted to a part-time clinic. The surgeon divides his time between London and Cheverell Manor, keeping the manor available for very private - and generally very rich - clients.

When she meets with Chandler-Powell she tells him only that she wants the scar removed because she "no longer has need of it". Chandler-Powell is struck by the explanation but does not ask further questions. Throughout the book I looked for the reason but was never satisfied that I'd got it. I may have missed a connection somewhere.

Subsequent to a lengthy description of Gradwyn's preliminary stay at the manor (to get the feel of it) and her activities leading up to the day of the surgery, as well as a venture into her childhood, we meet the employees at Cheverell Manor, one or two at a time, find out how they came to be there and what their feelings are at the time.

Thus we don't get to the main action until disk 4 (out of 12).

It is rather satisfying to meet the characters this way rather than after the murder. We get a better sense of them and can follow them as they react to the murder and can consider who might have done the deed. We also get to see them through the eyes of Commander Adam Dalgliesh (A.D. to Kate, his subordinate), a quicker scan of how they appear then.

As well as we did get to know Rhoda I felt much was left out. She was private in more than one sense and as Dalgliesh considered later in the book, perhaps it is arrogant to hope to understand the motives of others. We do know she met with a young gentleman friend, Robin, who is excited about her visit to the manor and who mentions that he is a cousin of the assistant surgeon. He wants to visit Rhoda while she is there but she is emphatic that she will not welcome any visitors. I get the sense that she accepts Robin as an occasional dinner partner but is not interested in his ventures nor in becoming better friends. I sense she doesn't have close friends although she does have admirers.

A.D., Kate, and Benton, from Scotland Yard, arrive soon after the murder is discovered. They have been called in because somebody at the manor has connections and wants the best. They set off to interview everyone in the manor, to investigate the mysterious nighttime comings and goings of somebody, and down the line to follow up on other leads.

As is typical of old-style English mysteries, the only realistic suspects are the small group living at or on the grounds of the manor. James' mysteries differ from the old style, however, in the development of the characters of the main investigators, in the changes that enter their lives. It is perhaps better to read these novels in sequence, whereas with Agatha Christie, for example, it does not matter.

A.D. is looking forward to his marriage with Emma. At the same time, Kate manages to maintain an attraction to him and perhaps a better understanding of the whole man, but she knows the attraction is not returned. Unlike characters in other novels I have read, Kate does not pine and agonize and try to get A.D. to fall for her. She knows where she stands and she accepts it.

After the various twists and turns have resolved, in a sense, and the case is solved, once again we get a glimpse of the different characters and where they have gone, how their lives have changed. A rather neat wrap.

book rating: 9 out of 10

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