Click here to read reviewer Shampa Chatterjee's take on The Lighthouse.
I've always enjoyed reading P.D. James mystery novels, though I haven't found the time to read the last few. Thus I came to The Lighthouse unfamiliar with the current status of some of the characters. I had some exposure to Kate Miskin, Adam Dalgliesh's assistant, but I had never heard of Francis Benton-Smith. One aspect of James' stories that I've always loved is her refusal to have a basic murder. There's always something interesting going on behind it, and she never kills a character the same way. No boring gunshots for her! So I sat down, ready to enjoy some of James' character-building as well as her wonderful prose and thoughtful mysteries. When I was done, I was struck by something: this was rather pedestrian.
Combe, a lonely island off of the Cornish coast of England where senior VIPs from all over England's aristocracy come to convalesce, is the site of a horrible murder of the acclaimed writer Nathan Oliver. The British government wants to use the island as a place for an important conference in a few months, so they call in Commander Adam Dalgliesh to solve the murder as quickly and efficiently as possible. He brings his assistant, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, and his new Sergeant, Francis Benton-Smith, to help him. Motives abound for most of the guests and staff on the island, and it's up to Dalgliesh to find the truth before anybody else happens to fall victim. This is complicated by a disease outbreak, one that brings Miskin to the fore and tests her resolve as well as her investigative talent.
It's not that I didn't enjoy The Lighthouse. In fact, I raced through it as I was wanted to know what happened. Even in James' worst books, her grasp of interesting character interaction makes her a joy to read. However, that's not quite enough to save this plot that is much less intricate than I'm used to from her, solved in an apparent revelation by Dalgliesh when he's lying ill. James spends almost a quarter of the book introducing us to the characters on the island, setting up the murder, and giving us all the different motives for the various characters. Being a big fan of Dalgliesh in action, this sequence started to really drag, saved only by James' mastery of her characters.
My understanding from the last two books (which I haven't read) is that James is really starting to get into the personal lives of her main characters, which explains the rather lengthy prologue introducing Dalgliesh, Miskin, and Benton-Smith, as well as giving us as some aspects of their latest love affairs as they get ready to go to Combe. While these events are briefly referenced by various thoughts from these characters as they're investigating, only Dalgliesh's romantic life actually has any bearing on the story, and no bearing on the mystery itself. I like hearing about the personal lives of the main characters (that's one thing I like about Elizabeth George), but getting this much information from James was something I wasn't used to. Given the nature of the mystery and the almost perfunctory way that it's solved, I feel like James shortchanged the mystery in order to get this personal information, which is a shame.
On the positive side, though, I have to repeat my love for James' prose and her character work. While I was getting a bit tired of hearing the various female characters having their bustline highlighted in their character description, that was my only fault with it. Dalgliesh is again a wonder to behold, always calm even while his romantic problems sometimes take his thoughts elsewhere, leaving his inner world in turmoil. Kate Miskin really comes into her own in The Lighthouse, and I really enjoyed reading about her. She's saddled with a bit of unrequited love of Dalgliesh (something that I'm glad isn't really dwelt on much), but she also greatly respects him, and when she has to take over, she has momentary doubts. She's quickly able to put them aside, though, and it's interesting how she puts her own stamp on the investigation even as she's often wondering what Dalgliesh would do.
The characters on the island are also well done. If I didn't feel it had detracted from space devoted to Dalgliesh and the solving of the mystery, I would have enjoyed the opening quarter of the novel even more. Even as I was chomping at the bit for Dalgliesh to arrive, I found myself sinking into the story of these people on this island, the various relationships and how they all fit together. There are enough red herrings to feed a dolphin, but they're all wonderfully set up by this sequence that leads up to the murder. None of them really annoyed me, and there wasn't one character that I wished James hadn't created, or that I wished she would kill off so I wouldn't have to read about him/her.
One minor bit about the ending did annoy me slightly. Miskin is suddenly saddled with a small romantic entanglement that comes out of nowhere during the epilogue (not even the main story). It's quickly and easily dealt with, as even the character himself realizes that nothing can ever come of it. Is James serializing her novels now, and will this lead somewhere? I truly doubt it, which makes it even more annoying that it rears up out of nowhere. It was unnecessary, especially given her already complicated romantic life.
The Lighthouse is a good mystery, don't get me wrong. Fans of mysteries with interesting characters will love it. However, it's not the best P.D. James out there, and it pales in comparison to some of her better ones (Shroud for a Nightingale is by far her best). James fans will probably enjoy it but be left a little wanting.