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Ralph C. Wood

Detecting Our Guilt

Original Sin

By P. D. James

Alfred A. Knopf

416 pp.; $24

Murder in defense of the good.

In "The Guilty Vicarage," his essay on detective fiction, W. H. Auden argues that crime novels are often more akin to addictive magic than to authentic art. We read them, says Auden, not to discern a version of our own evil in the murderer but to make him the scapegoat for our guilt. Like other recent masters of detection, P. D. James has been moving steadily away from such subartistic escapism. Original Sin, her twelfth crime novel, seems at first to offer the escapist temptation, only to lure us into an ever intenser confrontation with our own sin and guilt.

The murder milieu is a small, family-owned publishing firm called Peverell Press. It is located in Innocent House, a grand Georgian mansion on the Thames, downriver from London. As a four-storey stone palace that was initially financed by means of a murder disguised as a suicide, Innocent House proves to have been grotesquely misnamed. A century-and-a-half later, its inhabitants are reaping the bitter fruits of this original sin. Innocent House seethes with the hatreds and humiliations, the betrayals and infidelities that characterize both public and private life in the modern secular city. Everywhere there is guilt, and everyone is guilty. But nowhere is relief to be found in confession and contrition and pardon. These are the real marks of our post-Christian world as P. D. James portrays it. Her depiction of our society's pervasive lovelessness in Original Sin is often more frightening than the approaching political hell she prophesied in her last novel, The Children of Men.

James is a genius of thick characterization no less than the densely realized milieu. She gives even minor figures richly particularized identities. Like the Victorian masters with whom she is often compared, James offers the reader such intimate personal knowledge of her characters that we deeply identify with their struggles. The novel's four deaths require both readers and characters to grapple with theological no less than criminological questions. Throughout the whole book, in fact, James wrestles with pressing religious concerns, with quandaries that are made all the more acute because their traditional Christian answers have been abandoned.

By what rites, ask friends of a suicide, can they bury a woman who was a settled atheist? Is self-murder the supreme act of aggression, as claims the nun who is the suicide's sister? Or is it the most pitiable of all deeds, as James's vaguely Christian detective insists? By what secular means, asks a woman who has been made the sexual plaything of her lover, can she regain self-respect? Can a man care for a dying aids victim out of general compassion rather than personal friendship? Is it possible for a couple who has no religious hope beyond this life not to worship their only child? Can an old man confess and come to terms with the egregious sins of his past rather than silence and obliterate them from memory? Must a Jew define himself by the crimes committed against his race, bearing a burden of innocence that is even heavier than guilt, and thus representing the evils of humankind rather than their redemption? Should this same Jew break the law in order to spare a guilty fellow Jew from humiliation, even though his own career as a detective will be ruined?

Such questions come sharply to focus when the first murder victim turns out to be the chairman of Peverell Press, a ruthless man who is despised by his associates, and yet who, as we learn, had his own suffering: a complex man made contemptible by circumstance as well as choice. Adam Dalgliesh, James's investigator par excellence, relies upon moral and religious intuition as much as professional expertise to discern the motive for murder. It lies not in the victim's uninviting character, but in a long-nursed grievance having to do with his family history. Hateful though he is for his arrogance and cruelty, the dead man is killed for offenses he did not commit. His avenger retaliates by perpetrating not one but two acts of uncreation. He also slays a third victim in order to cover up the first of his crimes. Thus does evil beget evil in ways so religiously perverse, James suggests, that the modern secular world has no means either to fathom or control them.

Observing the difference between ancient and modern paganism, C. S. Lewis remarks in The Problem of Pain that "Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis . . . before it can win a hearing for the cure." P. D. James would seem to be agreed. No one at Innocent House takes evil seriously. Hissing Sid, the toy cloth snake that serves to stop drafts and prop doors and stuff the mouth of a murder victim, is the mascot at Peverell Press. James makes clear, by contrast, that evil is not an absurdity to be taken lightly because it affects only murderers and their victims. Sin, she shows, is an aboriginal and perduring presence in the best, no less than the worst, of us. The novel's stunning resolution thus makes us identify with the killer as well as his victims. He has committed triple murder in defense of the good-indeed, the highest good, Justice-and in retribution against one of the worst evils of our age-the Holocaust and its closet allies. Unlike Ivan Karamazov, with his abstract rage at innocent suffering, this destroyer has terribly concrete cause for his resentment.

Such, James reveals, is the awful subtlety of sin. It guises itself in the garb of righteousness. It forbids us to forgive sin and to return good for evil. It takes vengeance into its own hands rather than letting it belong to God. Finally, and most dreadfully, it remakes us in the image of the Uncreator. Hating one who had calcified himself against all pity for the defenseless, the punisher has turned his own heart into stone. He has become what he despises, a man incapable of care.

Yet the killer is not unlike his colleagues at Innocent House, nor his real-life readers. When God goes, P. D. James suggests, so does all tempering grace disappear from public and private life. Yet there is something immensely salubrious about a murder mystery that, in detecting our guilt, will not let hardened hearts remain impervious to it. Original Sin makes us face the deadliest of all diseases, the one its title names, the sickness unto death. And diagnosis offers at least the hope of cure.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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