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In the 17th century an ancient stone circle provides the venue for the burning of a witch. 350 years later and the neighbouring area will bear witness to another violent killing. Controversial journalist Rhoda Gradwyn decides to have a facial scar removed from her face. She books herself into a private clinic, where the surgeon queries why Gradwyn has taken so long to have it removed. Gradwyn sees it as a chance at a new life. She can't be more wrong, as the journalist will not leave clinic alive. As the poetry-writing Commander Dalgliesh (Richard Derrington) begins his investigation, another murder occurs.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's adventure for Sherlock Holmes,* "His Last Bow"**, the great sleuth declares to his closest colleague and friend, "I'm an anachronism, Watson - a precision instrument on a mass-produced planet." Doyle understandably kept most of Holmes's adventures in the era that he had created him, the Victorian age. Looking at her work in terms of style, characterization and themes, it seems very odd that the hugely successful mystery crime writer, P.D. James didn't save herself a lot of trouble and kept her stories in the 1920s. Her work is unashamedly set in the mould made famous by Agatha Christie, but curiously she has kept them in contemporary settings. I haven't read this 2009 novel in the Adam Dalgliesh series and nor am I really that familiar with James's work. If the truth be told, my most vivid experiences of P.D. James's works are childhood memories of various adaptations of her work by Anglia Television in the 1980s.
There is little you can fault with this radio adaptation's production values. The sound quality is excellent; the play's direction, its acting and its editing are all tight and well executed. Even some of James's ideas come through nicely. Ever since I saw episodes of "Cover Her Face" and "The Black Tower" as a child, I was attracted to the gothic aspects of her work. In "The Private Patient" we have the story of the stone circle (Britain is full of them***), where a 17th century witch burning occurred. However, this is often so much lightweight superficial dressing. There is little sense of peril, looming dread or even a serious attempt at supernatural implication, all of which are the hallmarks of the gothic genre. "The Private Patient" is no different in this respect. Actually, one has only to read through the various synopsises James has written since 1962 to discover this is pretty much trudging the same old familiar ground albeit lacking much of the energy of her earlier works, if The Guardian review is anything to go by. I guess in James's defence her career has spanned four decades now and continued to be successful in spite of major dramatic changes occurring both in crime fiction and crime fact.
I really had a hard job getting into this play. James might be going for a deeper more psychological approach to the crime story, but this doesn't really come out in the drama. It's not that I dislike old fashioned crime writing or even the particular style that focuses on the privileged classes - reminiscent of Georgette Heyer's foray into the detective novel - but it just seems a little forced. The Amazon reviewer, Barry Forshaw, may be impressed by the author's "affectionate reinventions of the devices and conventions" of an older era, but unfortunately I just don't buy it. The mobile phones and internet references just seem to be exhibited in a gauche fashion to prove that a Dagliesh mystery can thrive in a 21st century setting. And yet the drama only ever seems to pick up when we get back to the stone circle. Outside of that the use of the Dalgleish character seems little more than the equivalent of a "cheque please acting performance". I really couldn't engage with him in the same way as one might with an Ian Rankin Rebus or an Agatha Christie Poirot. He may be a sensitive character, but I just didn't have any sympathy for him.
This is not say that Richard Derrington doesn't do his best with the script, playing its hero convincingly or that any of the other cast members don't do their respective jobs well. I like the format with Carolyn Pickles narrating the piece and other members of the cast also telling parts of the story. This latter idea is a nice change of dynamic to this medium, as you get the part benefit of listening to an audio book as well as a radio drama. Such ideas were just enough to keep my attention to listen to the whole CD.
* From a chronological perspective. Many more short stories and even one novel were written by Doyle about fiction's most famous detective.
* *Although there is no obvious connection, James's title reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Resident Patient".
* **The Rollright Stones are just up the road from me. A good friend of mine used to live in a hut there and was the resident expert. No witch burnings or murders happened there as far as I know, but there was plenty of neo-pagans and bored middleclass "weekend witchcraft" going on - which more often than not was an excuse to get naked and have uncomplicated sex.