P.D. James’ newest novel “The Private Patient” opens with the brilliant line:
“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, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.”
Note how James weaves together the tiniest details with the dramatic final phrase and then surreptitiously pops in there the fact of upcoming murder. I’m instantly hooked. James is one of my favorite mystery writers, not the least because of her incredible characterization and insightful glimpses into humanity. It seems every book grapples with big unresolvable issues, from what we do in the face of injustice to how we retain compassion for others in the midst of horrendous evil to the awful admission that the capability for murder hovers somewhere inside us all.
But beyond fabulous writing, what is it about mystery stories that draws us in? I think it was Dorothy Sayers who observed that mysteries provide us with a framework in which to reconcile good and evil. There is something satisfactory about seeing justice done, even in a fictional world far removed from our own. I agree. Mysteries are some of the best escapist literature, because they give a sense of order, a world wherein the clever detective (who always has enviable qualities like literary genius or exceptional taste in fine wines) remains one step ahead of the culprit and brings the truth to light.
And if, as a reader, you’re able to keep up with the detective, then you feel extraordinarily intelligent. The detectives are always brewing strong cups of coffee (which inevitably makes me think I need a cup of coffee right NOW while I’m reading) to help them work through the case. I feel part of their little circle, always sure I’m on the right track, and then I fall for the little red herrings so cunningly planted in a well-plotted mystery. My certainty of the murderer’s identity is almost immediately followed with the big “Aha!” moment, when the pieces come together, and I’m able to see what really happened. That kind of reading gives even more satisfaction and is testimony to the power of an author’s creativity.
P.D. James does this incredibly well. I’ve just finished “The Private Patient”, and I’m still kind of flushed with the energy of the concluding chapters. Now to muddle through that post-book haze, when you have to leave the world of the characters and come back to reality. Perhaps I’ll go brew a cup of coffee and join the detectives for one final consultation.