REVIEW: Original Sin – P. D. James

2010 Faber paperback cover

2010 Faber paperback cover

This is the tenth of P. D. James’ crime novels featuring her Metropolitan Police detective Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh is a direct fictional descendent of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, though James’ novels are much more modern and less concerned with the crime novel as simple investigation or the solving of a puzzle, and rather with examining present-day life through the lens of a criminal investigation.

The story begins at Peverell Press, a publishing firm based in an imitation Venetian palazzo, Innocent House,  by the edge of the Thames in Wapping. The managing director, Gerard Etienne, has relatively recently stepped into the post: he is clear-sighted about the firm and what it should do in order to stay afloat in the current economic climate. However, he is not tactful or considerate, and his way of doing things is upsetting a lot of staff and his fellow partners: his sister Claudia; Frances Peverell, who is the last of the Peverells; James de Witt; and Gabriel Dauntsey, a now elderly but formerly well-regarded poet. Various things have been going wrong lately – illustrations being lost, proofs vandalised, the suicide of senior editor Sonia Clements – and all of this comes to a head with Gerard’s murder.

James has a relatively large cast of characters, but a fairly simple plot; although Dalgliesh is the senior officer, most of the responsibility for the investigation rests on Kate Miskin, now a Detective Inpector, and Daniel Aaron – also a DI but less senior than Kate. James cuts out the minutiae of a police investigation, focussing on certain aspects only, and sometimes surprising the reader by what she leaves out.

There’s a lot of background to the characters – Mandy Price, temporary short-hand typist, for example, or Daniel Aaron – but I’m not sure that all of this information is judiciously employed. Daniel’s on his way to his parents’ anniversary celebration when he gets called in to work, and I think that the dialogue could equally well have indicated his inner dilemma without the reader having to be presented with it. I feel that James can be a bit heavy-handed when describing her characters – telling, rather than showing – particularly when some of that detail adds nothing to our understanding of their character nor advances the plot in any way. She expends a lot of description on Innocent House, which strikes me as somewhat self-indulgent. And although Gerard Etienne considers one of the ways to save money is to sell Innocent House, he doesn’t also seem to consider that – even before that’s done – stopping the launch service which brings staff from Charing Cross to the office by water might also save some money.

While James doesn’t write boringly, and her plot is well-structured, I get a sense of chill, of disengagement – even when people are doing the right things or for reasons which appear to them to be right, there’s always some phrase or moment of self-knowledge which undercuts all that. Most of these characters seem to live detached lives – detached of circumstance or of choice – and none of them appear to have real, warm, loving feelings for anyone else – de Witt is possibly the only exception, and even he’s presented rather detachedly. Even the murderer seems unlikely – not perhaps in the despatch of Etienne, which is cleverly worked out, but the method of the two later murders seems wrong. And the ending bothered me, too. It all seemed overly melodramatic, and pointless.

As with many of James’ novels, because she sets them very closely in the time they were written, they seem to date very quickly. It isn’t something that I’ve noticed before, but James likes writing about her characters’ homes – as if by describing where they live gives us a short-cut to their inner lives: Kate Miskin’s new flat near the river near Limehouse, Daniel’s attachment to his family’s old home in East London rather than to his parents’ current home in Ilford, and his current problems with the flat he bought with a former girlfriend; James de Witt’s elegant Georgian house; the Etiennes, each with their flat in the Barbican, and so on. I’m not so sure that the minute description of, for example, Kate’s flat – although its location and size does demonstrate that her efforts to leave her poor, rather deprived roots behind have largely succeeded – really adds anything to the story or indeed to the reader’s understanding of Kate as a person and as a police officer. I’m also not sure whether Dalgliesh actually does a disservice to his team by heading the investigation, since with his increasing seniority his presence both in the investigation and this novel seems almost irrelevant.

I wouldn’t want you to think that this was a bad novel – James has a well-deserved reputation for crime fiction – it’s just that I’m not sure that I like this book much, nor do I even have much sympathy or liking for any of the characters. What was James trying to achieve here? Crime novel or general fiction? It seems an uneasy mix of the two.

Published by: Faber and Faber (2010, originally published in 1994)

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This entry was posted in 2013 New Reads, Crime fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to REVIEW: Original Sin – P. D. James

  1. That’s a fascinating observation about the relationship between the characters and their dwellings, I’d not noticed that either. I like James a lot but I think A TASTE FOR DEATH was probably when she reached her peak, with DEVICES & DESIRES already a slight step down. I haven;t read the most recent of her Dalgliesh books however. Thanks Ela, a really thoughtful review.

    • Ela says:

      I’m beginning to think that you’re right about James’s peak being ‘A Taste For Death’, but I have only read it once, and that many years ago. Her books aren’t cosy in the Agatha Christie vein, so there’s less comfort reading in them. I too haven’t read the later Dalgliesh books. I wondered, reading ‘Original Sin’, whether she was trying to transcend the crime genre, but not quite succeeding.

      I re-read ‘End of Chapter’ by Nicholas Blake soon afterwards, and in the similarities of the setting, I think it showed up the quality of James’ writing in comparison – though I think she’s a better plotter than Blake, and she has a much larger cast of characters – though obviously they were writing different kinds of novels. Blake’s a lot better at conveying character and likeness without going off into pages of description.

  2. Nora B. says:

    I am teaching Original Sin next month and found your review so congenial and useful! i was struck by all the (unnecessary?) house descriptions and thought how much better Agatha Christie does that –and she worried about her love of houses leading her into self-indulgent description. I thought here and there there was very good stuff, but thought Daniel’s Jewishness was done in a heavy-handed and almost stereotyped way –I always love Dalgleish, though, and always feel as if he is very believably a poet.

    • Ela says:

      Thanks for the comment. I liked the fact that Daniel was Jewish but not practising, which is why I thought the ending was so unbelievable. I did get the feeling that James felt she ought to include characters such as Mandy the temp, but without really understanding them.

      Do you teach a course on crime fiction or just are including ‘Original Sin’ as an example of James’ fiction? I would definitely have loved to study that!

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