The mystery novel, to borrow a line from Original Sin, has all the virtues of its defects. “The mystery,” Baroness James explained in a recent Washington Post interview, “deals with the planned murder” and is thus confined to a certain formulaic structure in which a detective protagonist confronts an often unsavory lot of suspects, all of whom must be plausible as potential killers; and, through his own deductive powers, exposes the perpetrator and makes right a universal order disturbed by the open rebellion that is murder. The killer is most often either a supreme egotist who kills for personal gain or satisfaction, or a vengeful Ahab whose angry rejection of the universal order amounts to blasphemy. Thus, in some ways, the mystery novel, which so often utilizes stereotype and structural formula along with a recurring protagonist for the sake of a stable point of view, is supremely predictable. The mystery has had great difficulty, therefore, in being accepted as am thing but diversion by modern critics, who have been trained to look down their collective noses at the very concept of form in art. After all, the mystery has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is predicated on form and structure, conflict and resolution. In the conventional mystery novel, the murderer will be found out.
What many critics have long forgotten is the purpose of the form. The mystery, like Greek tragedy, the plays of Shakespeare, or American Western films, is, paradoxically, freed by the very confines of its formula to explore the human condition. The predictable layout of the story allows the skilled writer to deal with broad themes within the confines of the novel’s pattern and, in the end, to affirm some greater truth than the mere identity of a criminal. As James herself has put it. murder is “taken so seriously” by the mystery novelist that the crime itself, and the determined uncovering of the criminal, serves as a reminder to us that murder is a “unique crime,” a crime which has lost some of its former sense of awesomeness in the very murderous 20th century. In a sense, the mystery as art propels us back into a frame of mind lost under the onslaught of modernity. “It is reassuring,” says James, “to think there could be a society in which . . . it [murder] is still a uniquely dreadful act.”
In recent years, some critics have begun to give mysteries, and P.D. James, their due. James is a skilled craftsman and perceptive writer who has done for the mystery what John le Carré did for the spy novel. Her characters are fully fleshed out human beings, her stones rich in detail, and her prose surpasses that of many of our pretentious “serious” novelists. Still, much has gone unnoticed by the critics who are now praising James and the mystery novel, in particular the question of the mystery’s resolution and that of the recurring Christian imagers of James’s novels. Just what (or whose) universal order is being set right by the capture and, presumably, the punishment of the murderer? Moreover, I have yet to read a review of a James novel (this is her 13th) that comments on the Christian themes and images so often invoked in her mysteries.
Some of the crime is a mock Venetian mansion of some architectural note (dubbed “Innocent House” by the 19th century builder) standing alongside the Thames, ancient and majestic witness to both the triumph and folly of man in the guise of ancient Romans, medieval Saxons and Normans, and modern Englishmen. Gerard Étienne (the character’s unusual name may have been borrowed from 16th century Bible scholar Robert Etienne), the ruthless and charming managing director of a venerable London publishing house, the Peverell Press, has been murdered, suffocated by gas fumes in a closed room, and bizarrely mocked in death; a toy snake has been wrapped around his neck, the gaping head of the serpent stuffed in his mouth, Étienne was a man with many enemies: a jilted lover, a sensitive author rejected by the firm, and ambitious and jealous colleagues, one of whom committed suicide shortly before his own demise.
Innocent House, its innocence lost long ago after the suicide (murder?) of the Peverell Press founder’s wife (literally a Kill: she fell from the house’s balcony, leaving a bloodstain, the house’s mark of Cain, visible on the patio below for years afterward), serves as a microcosm of James’s London and the modern world in general, a wasteland of empty and faithless creatures who, when not brooding over the futility and meaninglessness of their own lives, are busy clawing their way to the top of the Darwinian heap they live in, consuming each other like so many links in a pitiless world’s food chain. One character, brooding after the funeral of a colleague, notes that the religious service that accompanied the burial of the deceased was itself a futile and emasculated ritual, a rejectionist denial lacking in substance and marked by a “liturgy revised to offend no one, including God.”
Enter James’s protagonist, Scotland Yard’s Adam Dalgliesh, sometime poet, son of an Anglican rector, and connoisseur of church architecture, who serves as James’s alter ego, a detached but compassionate observer of the fallen state of the world, a prophet who reminds the novel’s characters not only of sin and the existence of evil but of the possibility of redemption. Dalgliesh’s role in uncovering sin (including his own), his pondering of the problem of pain (his wife was killed years earlier in a car accident), and his role as confessor (once again, James, like Le Carré, masterfully uses the vehicle of interrogation as a device for uncovering motivation and propelling the story forward to resolution) have allowed James to exploit the full potential of the mystery novel, and his brooding presence provides Original Sin, as in the best of James’s detective novels, with a center of gravity, a stabilizing factor in a complex narrative. Dalgliesh is the novel’s touchstone (though he appears less often than in earlier outings), a man living in the sprawl of modern London, but somehow not o/’it. Where else but in a P.D. James mystery novel will the reader find a recurring character in popular fiction who ponders the “dying echoes of plainsong and the vibration of 1,300 years of muttered prayer” in an ancient chapel before questioning a suspect, or who debates the concepts of grace, sin, and mercy with a backsliding nun?
As James often uses the juxtaposition of the modern with the ancient (medieval churches with modern skyscrapers, villages with cities, or, as in Devices and Desires, ancient ruins with a modern nuclear power station) to contrast the Age of Faith with Modernism, the organic with the contrived, humility with hubris, and the evils of the past with the even bleaker present, so she often uses the dignified Dalgliesh as a counterweight to his colleagues, in this case a feminist subordinate who will not allow her love for a man to block her intended smashing of the “glass ceiling,” and an unbelieving Jewish detective struggling with his own self-pity and his estrangement from the religion of his parents. Indeed, the condition of most of the characters in the novel is that of perplexed guilt: they are suffocated by the yoke of Original Sin, but have no idea what to do about it. They feel guilty, but often do not know why. Most seek escape in careerism, or in one of the many other pseudoreligions or ideologies by which modern humans seek to leave the sinking ship.
In the end, as we expect, the narrative ends in the unmasking of the killer and his forced confrontation with his own monstrous guilt. Another satisfying mystery has been solved, another plot unraveled, and if it all seems a bit contrived, we remember that this form allows James to flex her literary muscles in other, more edifying ways. The familiar framework provides James with a platform to mull over the degraded condition of London’s lumpen proletariat, made childish and repellent in part by the misguided ministrations of the welfare state, capital punishment, revenge versus retribution, grievance and justice, fidelity and treachery, and the really big question that always seems to be knocking about in the minds of her characters: Is this all there is?
Some will say James is doing nothing more than using familiar imagery to bolster a genre that is essentially escapist, that she is not making a Big Point, any more than George Lucas was when he recycled ancient mythology as high-tech pulp fiction in his Star Wars movies. Maybe. At the same time, isn’t the exploitation of the popular form to larger and perhaps, in part, unselfconscious ends precisely what the best storytellers do? I know nothing of James’s religious convictions, and there are times, especially in her 1986 A Taste for Death, when the religious images appear secondary to a pervasive and grim agnosticism. Still, Christian themes and images are a constant part of her mystery fiction, particularly in the Dalgliesh novels, and she has over the years come back again and again to what should be by now familiar territory to discerning readers.
[Original Sin, by P.D. James (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 416 pp., $24.00]