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James's 'Lighthouse' illuminates more than a crime

The Lighthouse
By P. D. James
Knopf, 335 pp., $25.95

Every good mystery writer leaves her or his own inkstain on the genre's conventions -- think of Holmes's lean brilliance, Agatha Christie's doily-and-cyanide propriety. P. D. James's enduring signature is a sort of moody abundance: If death is always in the room, so are the human foibles and hopes that put it there. As someone who worked for years in Great Britain's forensics and justice departments, certainly James possesses the technical expertise to take us through a good murder investigation. But it's the existential long view of her novels -- their sorrowful comprehension about life and death and the troubles in between -- that grants the work such distinction and riveting detail. We may know from the outset that a corpse is hidden somewhere onstage, but there's also likely to be plenty else: melancholy skylines, a line or two from Larkin, architecture and psychological complexity and sweet hot tea.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh, of course, is the primary vehicle for James's firm and generous vision. The poet-detective has been with her for a couple of decades and through most of her novels, and we've seen inner crises and second lieutenants come and go with bittersweet ease. By now he has a new love, Emma Lavenham, and a new sergeant, Francis Benton-Smith; the indomitable Detective Inspector Kate Miskin is still at his side. He'll need all those resources and more for what awaits on Combe Island, off the coast of Cornwall -- a rugged, 4-mile-long island with a history of piracy and a present-day mess on its hands. Established in the 1930s as a retreat for high muck-a-mucks, Combe has had many prominent guests over the years, few of them more irascible than Nathan Oliver, a renowned novelist who, at 68, is having to face his decline as a writer and a man. When his body is found one fog-bound morning hanging from the uppermost railing of Combe's lighthouse, the death is immediately viewed as suspicious -- if the fellow lately seemed as gloomy as he was cantankerous, there were a number of people on-island who had reason to help him over the edge.

''The Lighthouse," then, is a full-tilt James novel with a tried-and-true murder-mystery setup: a complicated and despicable murder victim, and a remote, contained territory with a fixed number of intriguing suspects who can't flee the scene. Dalgliesh arrives, with Miskin and Benton-Smith in tow, not long after the body has been lowered to the ground, and they soon encounter as many dark, brooding pasts that need plumbing as they do questions about the crime. First in line for Dalgliesh's interrogative skills are the victim's daughter, Miranda Oliver, and his live-in copy editor, Dennis Tremlett; the two have been caring for Oliver for years, literarily and actually, and his discovery of their recent engagement drove him into a violent rage before his death. There's the formidable Emily Holcombe, whose family settled the island and who, at 80, wants only to be left in peace -- but Oliver had staked an arguable claim to her cottage, and she was in danger of being evicted. Let's add to the list a fractured and alcoholic priest, and a physician who was disgraced before coming to Combe, a research scientist whose work on primates was exposed, in all its moral unsavoriness, in Oliver's most recent novel. Oh, and Jago Tamlyn, the athletic boatman who had his own unbearable grudge, and an imperious butler to Miss Holcombe (Scrabble is one of his chief duties) named Roughtwood.

So: Colonel Mustard in the library, though at least we know the rope did it. Or maybe not. A large hematoma on the victim's corpse insists -- death always leaves footnotes, or at least asterisks -- that a struggle took place, that someone besides the self-destructive author had a hand in his end. But no murder mystery is worth its weight in pathology reports if the investigation is confined only to the facts, and so ''The Lighthouse" spirals outward and backward toward the larger territories of tasks unfinished and dreams unfulfilled -- toward grief, resentment, love gone sour or never had. Dalgliesh is, as usual, ready for all this; fingering the bad guy is only part of the battle for a moral aesthete, and death's dominion is what drove him to poetry. Miskin is ready for it, too: She's tougher and more seasoned than ever, and she has a role near the end of the novel that's achingly heroic. Benton-Smith emerges as a wonderful deputy here, first annoying Miskin and then endearing himself, quoting Auden on the evil men do as effortlessly as he can scale a cliff. But the entire tapestry of ''The Lighthouse" is larger and more complex than the sum of its parts. Because James has such a sensate feel for her fictional milieu, the island of Combe and its little cockeyed citizenry are depicted with rich and credible details that prove consoling in the midst of a murder investigation: the resident housekeeper and her exquisite embroidery, the star-filled nights and stone cottages and constant cups of coffee. This is a quality common to James's novels, easily overlooked in the midst of her introspective characters and precise plots. She simply knows how to create a likable universe, high crimes and all.

''The Lighthouse" does, however, go on a bit much: garrulous history descriptions and a few repetitions that Dalgliesh (or Tremlett, for that matter) would have blue-penciled with a sigh. These oversights are irritating but not fatal; for the most part, they seem to indicate James's affection for her subject. I will say that I figured out who did it -- not to be a showoff or to suggest that James is off her game, but only to say it can be done, and that it's a predictably satisfying resolution to the case.

Which is part, not all, of the point. ''The Lighthouse" gives us wonderful characters, good and bad, from Oliver -- a demonic siphon of a writer who couldn't feel, only fabricate -- to the island's cook, happily ensconced at her worktable and dispensing wisdom as if it were cookies for the help. As for the island itself, wrapped in misty fog and history, its classic milieu only confirms what we already knew: That no matter how blessed or well fortified the retreat, we are never safe from the dark within.

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