We mystery junkies depend on our fixes. Most of our favorite writers crank out a book a year, and for the most part this is a comfortable, steady relationship. We know we’ll get a few hours of diversion and perhaps expend a little intellectual effort on solving the mystery before the final exposition. Current serial mysteries also keep us up to date with the extra-curricular activities of our favorite detectives and their households. (This sometimes requires chunks of awkward exposition for readers jumping into the series in mid-stream.) It’s a delicate balance — the author has to expend the majority of her effort on the puzzle, but the character stuff can’t be too cursory.
I’ve always been drawn to P.D. James‘ detective, Adam Dalgliesh, a traditional Scotland Yard officer who writes poetry in his down time. He’s complex, haunted — you could say that James pioneered this kind of mystery in which the solution of the crime entails acknowledgment of the moral stain, the distastefulness of the job, the horror, the horror. But James’ work has been a little bit dry lately. It’s always been painstaking, but there were passages of The Private Patient that felt fussy, almost academic. I’ve never cared much about exposition or the puzzle itself, so I’d be quick to feel this was over-emphasized, at the expense of the characters’ private lives. Looking at the list of the recent Dalgliesh books I find I’ve skipped several, in the course of which his sidekick Kate Miskin apparently embarked on a relationship with a colleague and Dalgliesh himself fell in love. But in The Private Patient, these relationships were alluded to rather than explored. The mystery itself, a rather simple murder of a rather unpleasant woman, never really engaged me.
I can see how a woman as intelligent and experienced as James would want to stretch this genre, but it isn’t very flexible. The narrative has to keep moving forward –too much musing on morals and the readers will put the book down. Worse, they won’t pick up the next one in the series.