Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644
The title, Innocent Blood, refers to a twelve-year-old girl who is lured into the home of a pedophile, raped, and then strangled by the molester’s wife. It also suggests a second victim, eighteen-year-old Philippa Rose Palfrey, an adoptee burdened by her natural parents’ crime. Adopted before the murder occurred, the intelligent but difficult Philippa is adoptive father/sociologist Maurice Palfrey’s living proof of nurture countering genetics. Her blood is not shed, but she must confront her parents’ guilt. Ironically, she proves far more cold-blooded and ruthlessly egocentric than either parent, and her rejection of her long-suffering, docile mother results in the final bloodshed. James’s narrative skill and deft psychological analysis suggest that the final “innocent” blood shed is that of the murderess/mother, who commits suicide when rejected by the daughter she has come to love and on whom she has come to depend.
Innocent Blood grew out of James’s musings, on a real murder case, about a child’s knowledge of parental culpability and about the potentially disastrous effects of the Children Act of 1975, which permitted adoptees to learn the identity of their natural parents. Not a detection or a crime novel, it shares the detective story’s interest in guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, love and revenge. Despite her fine education and comfortable home, Philippa fantasizes about her real parents when irritated by her adoptive ones. In a sociological and psychological experiment of the sort she accuses Maurice of indulging in, she finds, and, for the summer months before entering Cambridge, takes in, her real mother, Mary Ducton, a murderess just released from prison. Her act purposefully thwarts Maurice, whose approval and love she seeks, and dismisses her adoptive mother, Hilda, whose timidity and lack of self-worth she scorns.
As mother and daughter share a small London flat, work together in a restaurant, spend time on “educational” tours of museums and galleries, and seek intimate moments of self-revelation (a program Philippa establishes and her mother passively accepts), the father of the murdered child, Norman Scase, dogs their steps, bent on revenge in fulfillment of a deathbed promise to his wife. James skillfully interweaves the two plotlines—the golden youth searching for identity, the ugly, bumbling, and sweet-tempered but driven older man seeking release from a haunting obligation—drawing them closer and closer as the man becomes as obsessed with Philippa as he is with killing her mother. Ironically, at the moment of final vengeance, Scase finds his act thwarted, the murderess already dead, a victim of her own guilt and rejection by her only child. When his knife plunges into her throat, she has already stolen away the life he seeks. Philippa, recognizing her personal responsibility for her mother’s death, protects Scase from the police.
James’s basic argument is that identity comes from within, that parents provide few clues about their progeny, and that relinquishing necessary fantasies can bring “a kind of death.” Philippa is more the daughter of Maurice than of her real parents, sharing his intellectual distancing, cold disdain for weakness, and narcissistic self-absorption. Maurice’s marital and sexual conflicts are but psychological responses to Philippa. A final brief, incestuous affair frees them from their mutual obsession and allows a more normal life thereafter. One set of fantasies, purged by reality, is replaced by another; even Mary Ducton’s long, careful confession reworks reality to win back her daughter. According to James, a person’s account of his or her life is an interesting psychological study, but it is not reality.
Questions of guilt and innocence shade into blurred grays, with the “criminals” proving to be sad, pitiable victims of physical compulsions or of traumatic childhoods, and with the “innocents” proving disturbingly culpable. Environment outweighs heredity in molding individuals, but some sort of unique, individual personality proves to be the true final determiner.
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