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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 ...

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