Excerpt from The Lighthouse by P.D. James, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lighthouse

by P.D. James

The Lighthouse
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2005, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 352 pages

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Before Dalgliesh could reply, Harkness broke in, "The security rating, if it comes off, couldn't be higher."

Dalgliesh thought, And even if you're in the know, which I doubt, you have no intention of telling me who will be meeting at this top-secret conference, or why. Security was always on a need-to-know basis. He could make his guesses, but had no particular curiosity. On the other hand, he was being asked to investigate a violent death and there were things he needed to be told.

Before Colin Reeves had time to realise that this was his cue to intervene, Conistone said, "All that will be taken care of, of course. We're not expecting problems. There was a similar situation some years ago—before your time, Harkness—when a VIP politician thought he'd like a respite from his protection officer and booked two weeks on Combe. The visitor stood the silence and solitude for two days before realising that his life was meaningless without his red boxes. I should have thought that that was the message Combe was established to convey, but he didn't get it. No, I don't think we'll be worrying our friends south of the Thames."

Well, that, at least, was a relief. To have the security services involved was always a complication. Dalgliesh reflected that the secret service, like the monarchy, in yielding up its mystique in response to public enthusiasm for greater openness, seemed to have lost some of that half-ecclesiastical patina of authority bestowed on those who dealt in esoteric mysteries. Today its head was known by name and pictured in the press, the previous head had actually written her autobiography, and its headquarters, an eccentric oriental-looking monument to modernity which dominated its stretch of the south bank of the Thames, seemed designed to attract rather than repel curiosity. To surrender mystique had its disadvantages; an organisation came to be regarded like any other bureaucracy, staffed by the same fallible human beings and liable to the same cock-ups. But he expected no problems with the secret service. The fact that MI5 was represented at middle-grade level suggested that this single death on an offshore island was among the least of their present concerns.

He said, "I can't go inadequately briefed. You've given me nothing except who's dead, where he died and apparently how. Tell me about the island. Where exactly is it?"

Harkness was in one of his more difficult moods, his ill humour imperfectly concealed by self-importance and a tendency to verbosity. The large map on the table was a little crooked. Frowning, he aligned it more accurately with the edge of the table, pushed it towards Dalgliesh and stabbed it with his forefinger.

"It's here. Combe Island. Off the coast of Cornwall, about twenty miles south-west of Lundy Island and roughly twelve miles from the mainland, Pentworthy in this case. Newquay is the nearest large town." He looked over at Conistone. "You'd better carry on. It's more your baby than ours."

Conistone spoke directly to Dalgliesh. "I'll waste a little time on the history. It explains Combe and if you don't know it you may start under a disadvantage. The island was owned for over four hundred years by the Holcombe family, who acquired it in the sixteenth century, although no one seems clear exactly how. Probably a Holcombe rowed out with a few armed retainers, hoisted his personal standard and took it over. There can't have been much competition. The title was later ratified by Henry the Eighth once he'd got rid of the Mediterranean pirates who'd established it as a base for their slave-trading raids along the Devon and Cornish coasts. After that Combe lay more or less neglected until the eighteenth century, when the family began to take an interest in it, and visited occasionally to look at the bird-life or spend the day picnicking. Then a Gerald Holcombe, born in the late eighteen hundreds, decided to use the island for family holidays. He restored the cottages and, in 1912, built a house and additional accommodation for the staff. The family went there every summer in those heady days before the First World War. The war changed everything. The two elder sons were killed, one in France, the other at Gallipoli. The Holcombes are the kind of family who die in wars, not make money from them. That left only the youngest, Henry, who was consumptive and unfit for military service. Apparently, after the death of his brothers he was oppressed by a sense of general unworthiness and had no particular wish to inherit. The money hadn't come from land but from fortunate investments, and by the late Twenties they had more or less dried up. So in 1930 he set up a charitable trust with what was left, found some wealthy supporters and handed over the island and the property. His idea was that it should be used as a place of rest and seclusion for men in positions of responsibility who needed to get away from the rigours of their professional lives."

Excerpted from The Lighthouse by P. D. James Copyright © 2005 by P. D. James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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