Combe Island is a privately owned, remote and very exclusive retreat off the Cornish coast of southwest England. Its resident staff guarantees...

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“The Lighthouse”
by P.D. James
Knopf, 335 pp., $25.95

Combe Island is a privately owned, remote and very exclusive retreat off the Cornish coast of southwest England. Its resident staff guarantees discreet privacy for top government officials and other movers and shakers who need absolute peace — and can afford to pay for it. Then the grisly murder of a guest, the famous novelist Nathan Oliver, upsets Combe’s carefully nurtured tranquillity.

Enter Commander Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James’ brilliant and understated homicide detective. Along with his colleagues, Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, Dalgliesh travels to Combe to solve the case before it can become a political hot potato and a scandal.

In “The Lighthouse,” Dalgliesh’s team quickly learns that Oliver was a nasty piece of work — abusive to his daughter, contemptuous of his editor (both in residence), boorish or downright threatening to everyone else. In other words, nearly everyone on the island had a reason to kill the guy.

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In their methodical and low-key fashion, Dalgliesh and his colleagues begin to narrow the field. In addition to a standard-procedure search for clues, this includes a deft probing of all the residents’ psyches and interwoven histories.

At the same time, each cop has to deal with certain personal issues. Dalgliesh’s love life (after years of hibernation) has taken a turn for the better; but what will become of him and his beloved Emma? Then there’s the ambitious Benton-Smith’s tortured ambivalence about his biracial background, and Miskin’s sweet but well-hidden feelings for her boss.

When Dalgliesh is laid low by illness, his subordinates take center stage. Make no mistake, though — this remains the Commander’s show. Or, rather, it’s P.D. James’ show.

Now in her mid-eighties, James has written one of the most compelling books of her remarkable career. Far from being merely a puzzle worth solving, “The Lighthouse” is a magisterial and subtle exploration of all-too-human emotions.