It took me awhile to get around to reading this. I've lately come back to James's books, having taken a goodly time off from reading her. Beginning with The Lighthouse, I've come to re-appreciate her meticulous crafting and psychological depth more. What drove me away in the first place was her lack of humor and the bleakness of the human psyche as seen through her eyes. Even when a character rises in sacrifice, there is a stolidity that dampens the gesture.
James entertains us by presenting a story whose layers are slowly revealed. There is not much action (sacrificial burning notwithstanding), and this is very much an intellectual puzzle. However, the cool, calculating Commander Dalgleish exhorts his team – and the readers – not to forget the humanity behind the crime. Whether or not the victim deserved death, "'Every victim deserves the same commitment.'"
The victim in this case is a freelance investigative journalist who finally is having a childhood scar removed from her face. She enters a private clinic based in a renovated country manor house. Playing on the term "private," it appears little is known about Rhoda Gradwyn, in contrast to the exposure she gives the subjects of her articles. Private, too, are the lives of the individuals who reside at the manor house. Although eventually coincidences and serendipitous information is unearthed, allowing the solution of the crime, it seems hardly likely that the murderer will escape detection anyway. It is, in essence, a locked room mystery. There is an economy of words and plotting, but there also are red herrings that serve to give us insight into some of the characters, and these are well-crafted by Baroness James.
At 80 years of age, she still has "it."