Deadly serious

<strong>The Private Patient

</strong>P D James

<em>Faber & Faber, 416pp, £18.99</em>

From the moment that Rhoda Gradwyn appears in the blurb on the dust jacket of P D James's new novel, discussing the removal of a facial scar with a Harley Street surgeon, it is obvious that her life is in jeopardy. As it happens, the notorious investigative journalist, who is the eponymous "private patient", survives precariously until page 97, when she is throttled in a bedroom at Cheverell Manor, a Dorset house converted into a bespoke plastic surgery clinic. But that is perhaps beside the point, because this is a murder story, a narrative that is pivoted upon death.

And, as such a story, this is one that proceeds with aplomb and panache. The intricately drawn plot unfolds in clear, stylish prose against a London of mullioned windows and a Dorset of standing stones and laurel bushes. The knowledge, legal and forensic, that the reader requires to stay abreast of events is passed on gently, too, with the didacticism often elegantly clad in dialogue.

Yet it seems that the real suspect to be cross-examined in this novel is not any one of the myriad potential murderers, but rather the status of detective fiction itself. After all, when, late on, two women who have just stumbled upon a cadaver in a freezer are reassured with the words "You've both had a terrible shock" it is evident that this shock is internal, within the book. The characters may be quivering, but the reader, who came to the table expecting a body count of at least one, is surely not.

However, with considerable poise, James manages to elevate her book out of the genre gutter, and adds strength to the claim that writing prefaced by a tag, whether crime, fantasy or science fiction, can still claim to be literature. An early pastiche of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which we are told that "they were to be indebted to Oscar Wilde for the dialogue of this personal inquisition", falls rather flat. Yet, elsewhere, a wry, metafictional strand shows that this is a novel very much aware of its position and willing to fight for its status. When one suspect suggests that "perhaps there's a serial murderer loose in the village picking us all off one by one. I read a book by Agatha Christie which deals with that," there comes an immediate reply of: "Don't be ridiculous."

Yet while James distances herself from death-kitsch, her prose is spry enough to use the foundations of the detective genre even if she changes the superstructure. One scene "looked as if it had been set up to be photographed for the jacket of an upmarket thriller". Which, of course, on one level, is exactly what The Private Patient is.

The novel is also the 14th outing for James's poetry-penning investigator hero, Adam Dalgliesh. And while a detective is inevitably a detective story staple, the focus on his personal life is another factor that fleshes out the heart and the art of this novel. When Dalgliesh's fiancée drives down to break the news of the rape of a friend of hers to him, and to appeal for his help, two strands entwine neatly. It is his job as well as their relationship that has drawn him to her at that moment, yet his job will not permit him to intrude on another case and help her directly.

Of course, Dalgliesh's life has an element of artificiality. He first appeared in James's 1962 novel Cover Her Face, and therefore, to choose a suitable genre fiction parallel, his career in crime-fighting is now of a similar length to that of Biggles in aviation. Yet, pointedly, Biggles was never allowed to get married.

Baroness James is 88 this year, and another striking aspect of what one hopes is not her last novel is the sensitive descriptions of old age. The retired lawyer whose revelations are the final piece of the plot jigsaw resides in an institution where "care had been taken not to distress visitors by displaying any notice bearing the words retirement, elderly, nursing or home". It is fitting that James, who has previously drawn on her own experience in the NHS and the Home Office in her fiction, should now paint old age with such an acute eye.

So, if The Private Patient sounds a trumpet call for the literary validity of detective fiction, it does so at a propitious time. The writers of the much-lauded Baltimore crime drama The Wire have recently spoken seriously about their use of Greek tragic motifs, and have been listened to. If it is acceptable even on television, surely the time has come for the odd written murder to be acceptable as genuinely highbrow. Even if the punter still wants, and needs, to know whodunnit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession