The Lighthouse - P.D. James

~~Moved from GR~~


The Lighthouse (An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)

by PD James


I keep picking up PD James, thinking that the books can't be as unsatisfying as I remember. PD James is lauded for her intricate plotting and her impressive ability to channel her personal experiences in the Home Office to create a realistic portrait of a police investigation. But, as always, I simply rediscover that I underestimated just how much I dislike these books.

At the end of a PDJ novel, including this one, I find that I hate all the characters. Each character dying off is almost a relief. I am left with the feeling, as Agatha Christie would put it, that they are all "nasty people". I always feel soiled after reading a PDJ novel. The people involved are so awful, so corrupt, so cold, so conscienceless, including PDJ's darling detective, Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh is slightly reminiscent of Javert from Les Mis, but without Javert's redeeming qualities; he is truly a frozen rock rather than a human being, so much so that she sticks on the artificial appellation of poet to his character, like one of those facades added to add architecture to those boxlike government buildings. Dalgliesh is conscienceless, he is cruel to the victims to get information, and he is unfeeling to his detectives, playing them off against each other to further his cause. It is fine for a character to be flawed, but clearly, PDJ takes no issue with this; she applauds him. I hate the fact that he is involved with a woman who has no connection with his life and is upper-class. PDJ has her paper-cut-out racial/class-issue characters, but they don't feel like real people to me--just talking stereotypes.

I guess, honestly, what irks me most about PDJ isn't her books; it's her comments about other members of her genre. Like Raymond Chandler before her, PDJ takes pot shots at Agatha Christie, calling her simplistic and fantastic. In fact, she hates having her work compared to Christie, stating that she is "Such a bad writer," and "a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning," despite having ripped off quite a few of AC's plots. Worse still, in every novel I have ever read by PD James, (and I've made it through at least 10) she always, always resorts to a murderer's confession. In at least 3 cases that I recall off-hand, for some unknown reason, the murderer literally taped a confession on audiocassettes and sent it to Dalgiesh posthumously. Seriously???!!! That in itself is unforgivable; yet even worse is PDJ's lack of humility, her belief that her works somehow vastly outshine the "simple," "contrived" Christie. PDJ's comment?

“Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent.”

If only that were true of PDJ. AC's crimes at least can be solved without forcing a murderer's posthumous confession. PDJ on that most interesting subject of herself?

"I always felt that if I managed to get the book written, it would be published."

[Quote taken from an interview with PD James...that unquestioning self-assurance explains many of my issues with her.]

Whereas in an AC, I find I really like all of the characters; caricatures though they may be, they are human enough to breathe and live and be uncertain in nature. The suspense in Agatha Christie's books comes from us not wanting to sacrifice the characters we have grown to love, while still unwillingly seeing that they are capable of murder. AC may be xenophobic and racist and classist and sexist, but her characters still breathe.

The Lighthouse continues in the same vein as the previous stories. Dalgliesh and his lady love are cold and uninvolved. Kate, the lower-class cutout, is still sympathetic and pining for her boss. The mystery itself is interesting, but the conclusion felt forced and utilizes (wait for it) a murderer's confession. Not my type of story, but I concede that if I were not so heavily biased about the Agatha Christie issue and did not find the characters so unsympathetic, I could appreciate the lyrical language and intellectual mystery.