One Foot in the Grave by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"He slithered his feet over the edge of the bed and pushed himself slowly up till he was sitting.
So far so good, but to stand he would have to make a single effort - there could be no halfway resting stage without her arm round his shoulders to steady him. He took two long breaths, clutched the iron bedhead with both hands and heaved, willing grip and arm muscles to remain taut through the blackness. It came and went with the familiar faint roaring [...]"
A disappointment. I had high hopes for Peter Dickinson's One Foot in the Grave (1979) because almost 40 years ago I read his outstanding A Pride of Heroes (U.S. title: The Old English Peep-Show), which I would rate with at least four stars. Alas, this book is not even close to that level: it fails as a mystery/crime novel, and the writing - although accomplished - is not as superbly memorable as in the other novel.
Retired Detective Superintendent James Pibble (a recurring character in several crime novels by Mr. Dickinson's) is convalescing in a luxury nursing home, after suffering a major stroke. Not only is he physically frail but also his mental functions are impaired: he suffers blackouts and periods of diminished consciousness. We meet him when he performs a valiant effort to get up from his bed - see the epigraph - then he manages to dress, leaves his room, and proceeds with utmost difficulty to a water tower that belongs to the nursing home complex. In the tower - after crawling up the stairs - he finds a dead body. This is not the only death in the novel, and Mr. Pibble, blessed with improving lucidity, will be helping the police in their investigations.
While the book does not deliver as a crime drama, it is somewhat redeemed by sharp psychological observations of Mr. Pibble's mental frailty - the blackouts and periods of marginal consciousness are portrayed with great insight as are all the "paraphernalia of sickness and the obscenities of age." I also like the romantic thread: yes, the 64-year old Pibble, physically and mentally infirm, and a female nurse in her late twenties like each other a lot, and there is even some talk about marriage. One should also note the author's cleverness in not divulging the purpose of Mr. Pibble's escapade to the water tower, which to me would be the only interesting mystery in the novel; unfortunately, a reviewer spoils it on the back cover of my edition. What I do not like, with quite some vehemence, is the thread about settling the old scores between the villains whom Pibble dealt with in the past, the bent police inspectors, and criminals who have since acquired a status of legitimate citizens.
Finally, like Mr. Pibble, I am 64, so allow me a personal comment: it is quite sobering to realize that one is just a CVA away from a vegetative and minimally conscious state.
Two and a half stars.
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