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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

The Private Patient by Baroness P.D. James holds our interest by the discovery of not just the who-dun-it, but the complex motives behind the actions. Anyone who loves dogs and brilliant descriptive writing will find Sawtelle rewarding. Wallace Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs demonstrates that as a writer of style and elegance, he has few equals. Rancho Weirdo by Laura Chester contains humor in these tales that is integral, not incidental, and they are wonderfully irreverent


THE PRIVATE PATIENT (An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)

by P.D. James, © 2008

Published by Alfred A. Knopf; Hardcover, 352 pp

Any mystery fan familiar with P.D. James’s books will dive into her most recent offering with delighted anticipation and high expectations. Baroness James is renowned for her craft, producing books that have intricate plots and interesting, fully-developed characters.

By virtue of their reappearances in the series, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the members of his staff, and his lady love, Emma, are chief among those characters. But perhaps it is the tangential characters that most attest to James’s genius, for they, too, are given dimension and humanity within the brief framework of her story. James relates their histories, discloses their secrets, and reports their quirks with economy and skill, bringing their personalities to vivid life.

In a James book, it is always unlikely that the reader will be able to spot the criminal off the bat, but even after Dalgliesh’s investigations give enough detail to reveal the perpetrator, our interest is held by discovering not just the who-dun-it, but also the complex motives behind the actions.

It would be impossible to discuss Baroness James and her works without noting that the woman is now almost 90 years old, and is obviously as compos mentis as ever, since, for the most part, this brand new book comes up to its promise. It may not be the very best one she has written, (don’t expect me to assign ranking to such bounty), but it certainly delivers an interesting read. Some of the references and characters may be confusing to anyone who hasn’t read the earlier books, because James includes, rather awkwardly, a couple of extraneous subplots involving a pair of Lesbians (from a previous book), and refers to past romances involving Dalgliesh’s staff members.

However, The Private Patient opens with a bang:

    “On November the twenty-first, 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...”

In James’s clever hands, knowing from the very first the identity of the murdered woman doesn’t in the least destroy the suspense and drama of the novel.

Rhoda Gradwyn, it turns out, is an investigative journalist who has, in her time, made more than a few enemies. She has come to Mr. Chandler-Powell (the British don’t refer to master surgeons as “Dr.”) seeking removal of a disfiguring facial scar.

Her murder occurs at a private medical facility run by Chandler-Powell on an estate known as Cheverell Manor. The fact that it doesn’t happen until chapter fifteen is a master stroke that allows James plenty of time to set the scene and introduce a remarkable number of possible suspects with varying motives.

There is a lovely little final chapter about the wedding of Dalgliesh and his Emma that seems almost a sop to James’s fans, and not really part of this tale at all (although the impending date is referred to several times in the text). The scene is reminiscent of the wedding of Dorothy L. Sayers’s creations, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in her famous mystery, Busman’s Holiday. Whether or not James’s description of the event is an intended homage to Ms. Sayers, it will leave you with a warm send-off.

For this reviewer, one of the great joys of reading a book by Baroness James is simply her elegant and eloquent use of the English language. If you have read any of the mystery trade’s recent best-sellers, but haven’t yet discovered James, you are in for a lesson in the writing of good prose. That that lesson will prove to be a pleasant read is, indeed, the proverbial icing on the cake.



The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski, ©2008

Published by Harper Collins, Hardcover; 562 pp

My suspicious nature caused me to put off reading or reviewing this well-publicized best-seller (an “Oprah’s Book Club” choice). In the end, I decided that anything that has engendered so many strong opinions pro and con is worth experiencing myself, so last week I gave in and read it. Apparently, the early reviews referring to it as “An American Hamlet” brought Shakespeare enthusiasts rushing to read it. Their responses seem to be either praise or vociferous outrage. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, here.

For what it’s worth, Wroblewski has done what story tellers have done since the dawn of time, i.e. adapt older tales to suit  themselves and/or their cultures. Shakespeare himself did it wholesale, including the subject matter and characters in his Hamlet, which he adapted from earlier published works (the earliest we’re sure of came from the 1200’s), and those in turn came from early Scandinavian legends.

Anyone who loves dogs, or loves brilliant descriptive writing, or doesn’t believe that every good novel must have a happy ending, will find something rewarding in this book. I loved it.


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©2009 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb

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