The game's afoot! English authors in fine mystery form

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"The Private Patient" by P. D. James (Knopf, $25.95)

Baroness James' 14th Adam Dalgliesh mystery is a jewel in the crown of the woman considered by many the queen of crime fiction.

She's at the top of her form in a genre that many critics, most famously Raymond Chandler, long ago pronounced dead.

That is, of course, the classic mystery, which Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers developed to perfection -- and, unfortunately, beyond.

Back in the 1920s and early '30s, it ranked just after bootleg hootch as a popular pastime. Who killed Col. Corn with the Brazilian blowgun now missing from the library?

But James has proven that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. "The Private Patient" is loaded with the situations and motifs of the classic mystery:

The brilliant, righteous detective; the ancient, isolated country estate; relics and rites of primitive religions; a disputed will; love affairs; envy; surly servants; hidden sins and crimes, and so on.

There's even a scene in which Dalgliesh calls all the characters to the library. Guess why?

One suspects James has tongue firmly in cheek at such moments -- and there are several. Yet the story is too grim to be a parody.

In this case, Scotland Yard's Dalgliesh must suspend his plan to marry his lover, Emma Lavenham, and proceed to the countryside, where Rhoda Gradwyn, a scandal-mongering journalist with many enemies, has been strangled to death.

She'd gone to Cheverell Manor, the ancient country estate now transformed into an up-market clinic, to have a scar removed by the famous plastic surgeon, George Chandler-Powell.

Did one of Gradwyn's enemies take revenge, or was the deed done to ruin Chandler-Powell professionally and economically by making his clinic notorious?

Dalgliesh and a few of his homicide crew are ordered to aid the local police. As the investigation advances it becomes clear that nothing is clear. Several members of the clinic's staff had motives for murder, and it proved possible that someone outside the manor (and someone was seen outside the manor) might have been the killer or somehow involved.

When, days later, a second body is discovered in a locked freezer (a true cold case), one suspect is eliminated but there are still no answers.

Dalgliesh himself is further upset (never giving a sign, of course) when Emma arrives unannounced to ask him to investigate the rape of her friend's daughter.

She breaks down in tears, but Dalgliesh cannot help, except to offer her sandwiches and drinks. She regains her composure, crucial for a good James character, and returns to London with the bad news.

Much of James' fiction is in this old-fashioned form. But she makes it work, perhaps for contradictory reasons.

On the one hand, there is a depth and complexity to her characters and the moral problems they face, that keep the reading interesting.

Even the wicked Rhoda is shown to have suffered and been shaped by some unfortunate circumstances. Her scar, and her odd explanation for having it removed, suggest symbolically that a society that covers only physical scars, but won't deal with deeper psychological and social ones, is fundamentally unhealthy.

On the other hand, James constantly reminds her readers that her writing is a game, a self-aware, civilized entertainment, with bonuses for the happy few (and all her readers are the happy few!). Of course Dalgliesh eventually connects the dots and solves the crimes in a wholly satisfactory manner. The novel ends on a thoroughly optimistic note.

Indeed the happy ending (a marriage, of course) is in stark contrast to the dark view of human nature the rest of the novel projects. Love conquers all -- but only for the moment.

As the last sentences suggest, "It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have."

Those allusions to Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde keep us chuckling as we sit by the fire in the library. The only thing missing is an introduction by Alistair Cooke.

"Cold In Hand" by John Harvey (Harcourt, $26)

Fans of John Harvey's Charlie Resnick police procedurals will be both surprised and pleased to learn there's a new one.

Surprised, because Harvey ended the series, which gave him critical acclaim and a loyal following, after 10 novels. When he moved from Nottingham, the crime-infested site of the series, to London, he was announcing that he wanted his work to move on as well.

A few novels later, Harvey may have changed his mind, but "Cold in Hand" shows he hasn't lost his touch. It has all the surprises, the urban realism and the complexity of problems and character typical of his previous novels.

Modern Nottingham has no Robin Hood and the poor aren't as innocent as they used to be. Resnick is a chubby, jazz-loving bachelor with low self-esteem, famous for his creative ways with a sandwich. Though near retirement, he still heads up the homicide squad.

At the end of the last novel, Resnick prevented the murder of a member of his squad, Lynn Kellogg, in an incident which propelled these two wounded souls into a relationship that in the new novel, finds them living together quite happily.

But not much else has changed in the city. Organized crime thrives. Immigrant subcultures dominate run-down neighborhoods and rival gangs fight and die for the same absurd and self-destructive reasons, slum turf and pride.

Early on, Kellogg is shot and wounded by a bystander while trying to stop a fight, but a young girl is killed.

Resnick almost immediately finds trouble dealing with the dead girl's family, the Brents. The father, a Jamaican immigrant, goads Resnick with charges of police racism and claims Kellogg used his daughter as a shield and so caused her death.

Back on the beat, Kellogg is having her own problems investigating the murder of a prostitute, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe. She is approached by a mysterious officer in the Serious and Organized Crime Agency who wants to both date her and interview her witness. She resists on both counts and later learns the agent has close ties with the dead woman's pimp.

As uncertainties about both murders increase, distrust and hostilities among the communities and various police agencies escalate. Then the roof falls in on Resnick when Kellogg is shot dead as she enters their home.

Harvey keeps you guessing about the murders, but along the way we get pictures of justice and injustice crudely played out among competing interests and the tragedies of individuals caught in these larger struggles.

Resnick's personal losses come to stand for a society that cannot seem to right itself. But the introduction of new and energetic investigators, mostly from recent immigrant families, suggest that the game (and, I'm guessing, this series) may not be over.

"Cold in Hand," the blues classic by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith which Resnick loves, turns loss to beauty. And so Charlie keeps on keeping on. Let's hope Harvey does, too.

Michael Helfand is a professor of English literature at the University of Pittsburgh.


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