James has said that ideas for her books begin with a setting. Here the setting is a small (fictional) island off the coast of Cornwall that has been turned into a resort for people of distinction—politicians, writers, diplomats—who need a break from the stresses of their lives. Combe Island offers a secure environment—visitors do not bring their bodyguards—and options for solitude or society.
The island calmed and enchanted me as well, with its crashing tides and cliff walks, its rustic chapel and stone cottages. And of course its lighthouse, no longer in service but maintained as an historical site. James deftly brushes in allusions and connotations, not only of lighthouses but of small islands: treasure islands, self-contained paradises, embattled outposts threatened by the sea.
Commander Dalgleish, in his role as leader of the Special Investigation Squad, is asked to look into a suspicious death on Combe Island. Abandoning his plans for a weekend with Emma Laverham, Dalgleish rounds up his team—DI Kate Miskin and Sergeant Benton-Smith—and heads out.
James is one of my favorite authors. She understands how government works and Scotland Yard. Her stories are well-plotted, with the right amounts of suspense and baffling turns. Her writing is simply amazing: intelligent, forthright, engaging, and at times profoundly moving. Best of all, she has created characters with subtle shadings who grow even more complex in each installment of her long-running series. She gives us just enough of their personal lives to make them interesting, but never so much that it interferes with the story. Here, the denizens of the island are fully drawn as well, their fears and routines, their needs and desires, their histories and dreams.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of The Book of Ebenezer LePage with its Guernsey setting and memorable depiction of daily life on the island. As he described, World War II brought the end of Guernsey’s centuries-long isolation and the loss of their unique culture, overwhelmed by tourism and television. Isolation, though, is not always a good thing. I wondered if the isolation of Combe Island in James’s book made it easier for the people there to slip the bonds of society’s rules and expectations, if perhaps something taboo like murder could there come to seem a natural solution.
It is hard to believe James is 88. She has lost none of her power as a writer, her confident prose contrasting sharply with Elizabeth Smart’s struggles (described in the last entry). I was first attracted to her books by their intelligence, but have come to treasure every aspect of them. This is a worthy addition to the series.