Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lighthouse

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Lighthouse (Faber & Faber, 2005).

I read this last week and I'm still pretty aggravated that I had foolishly looked at Wikipedia months beforehand and had a crucial plot point spoiled. Then again, it's the sort of thing that I can see most reviews mentioning. Usually, we like to see the heroes in our fiction overcome strange and unwelcome obstacles, but the one that Commander Dalgliesh runs into during the course of The Lighthouse is really, really outre, and one of the most satisfying left-field turns that P.D. James has yet concocted.

So, with that minor disclaimer in place, in the thirteenth novel in the series, Dalgliesh and his special team are sent to a remote island off the Cornish coast which has functioned for decades as a getaway for the rich and powerful. A body is found hanging from the lighthouse: a very successful author, loved by millions but hated by everybody who knew him. All of the genre's tropes are established early on, especially the trick of having the victim offend practically everybody he comes across during his last day alive, and the extremely isolated setting is an English cozy standard, although done with one eye on 21st-Century politics.

I was a little disappointed that, once again, James can't quite escape some of her own tropes. Very, very old motives are once again at work, with pensioner-aged characters unable to get past what happened to them during the events of World War Two. I sort of wish she had reread Original Sin before embarking on this tale, and decided that she probably shouldn't go that route again.

This is definitely a book that I enjoyed much more while I was reading it than after the fact, as I'm having trouble coming up with any reasons to recommend it to anybody. It's possible that, after doing this for forty years, James is having trouble making her stories really stand out, but then again the previous two novels, Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room, just crackled with a modern feel and genuine excitement. Despite the very contemporary trappings and politics, this just somehow feels too old-fashioned by some measure. I say that even with the remarkable twist that keeps Dalgliesh out of the action for a good chunk of the story and lets DI Miskin and DS Benton-Smith take a welcome turn at center stage. Recommended with reservations.

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