Original Sin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

ORIGINAL SIN, like P. D. James’s previous Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray mysteries, is both a thematically complex novel and a traditional whodunit.

Gerard Etienne, new managing director of a London publisher, intends to fire staff and make other changes but is murdered before he can effect his plans. When...

(The entire section contains 2317 words.)

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ORIGINAL SIN, like P. D. James’s previous Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray mysteries, is both a thematically complex novel and a traditional whodunit.

Gerard Etienne, new managing director of a London publisher, intends to fire staff and make other changes but is murdered before he can effect his plans. When Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh arrives, suspects are close at hand, and everyone has a motive.

A Dalgliesh associate, young Daniel Aaron, discovers incriminating evidence in the company’s archives, an unsigned proposal for a novel entitled ORIGINAL SIN. Set in Vichy France between 1940 and 1944, the book tells the story of a Jewish mother and her twins, who are hidden by friends but betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, where they are murdered. Documentation in the manuscript reveals that the retired head of Peverell Press, Jean-Philippe Etienne, a Resistance leader in Vichy France, had betrayed a woman and her four-year-old twins. Etienne admitted his action at the time but claimed it had been necessary to maintain the Germans’ good will while working underground against them.

When the manuscript’s author, a Peverell Press partner, admits killing Etienne’s son Gerard and, later, his daughter Claudia to avenge his own children’s deaths, old Etienne reveals: “Gerard and Claudia were adopted in Canada. . . . They are not related by blood to each other or to me.”

After Aaron lets the murderer walk off to kill himself, Dalgliesh asks, “You let him go deliberately? He didn’t break free?” Aaron responds: “No, sir. He didn’t break free. . . . But he’s free now.” He also admits: “I couldn’t bear to see him handcuffed, in the dock, in prison. I wanted to give him the chance to take his own path home.”

Daniel Aaron, who stands at the thematic center of ORIGINAL SIN, is the only person in the novel who appreciates the awesome ambiguity of the moral issues he faces. In this novel of original sins, he is a touchstone by which others must be judged.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. February 23, 1995, p. B3.

The Economist. CCCXXXIV, February 4, 1995, p. 81.

London Review of Books. XVI, December 22, 1994, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1995, p. 13.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 11, 1994, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 2, 1995, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXI, March 6, 1995, p. 126.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 21, 1994, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. February 24, 1995, p. A8.

Original Sin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

P. D. James’s detective novels are longer than those of most other authors in the genre, not because the crimes are unusually complex and take more time to unravel but because solving a mystery is not her only interest. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park (she was honored with the title in 1991) always has tested the generally accepted limits of detective fiction, leisurely presenting characters and milieus in order to delineate themes as well as to provide the wherewithal for crime solving. James is more than merely a genre writer. Innocent Blood (1980) and The Children of Men (1993) are standard novels, and Original Sin, like its Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray predecessors, is at the same time a richly textured and thematically complex book and a traditional whodunit.

James uses the Thames, across which characters travel to work and in which one of them dies, for symbolic as well as utilitarian purposes. By evoking the river’s links with British history, she signals early in the novel that the crimes have a historical context. A cloth snake intended to block drafts ends up coiled around a murder victim’s neck and its head stuffed into his mouth. Not simply a killer’s grotesque finishing touch, this is also a clear symbol of original sin behind the crime.

Familiar mystery-genre traits also are present: One murder begets others; suspects belong to the same social or professional group; everyone has an opportunity to commit the crimes; family conflicts, financial problems, and threats to one’s professional position are apparent motives; and the provocation for the initial murder is embedded in the past. Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his assistants go through a predictable routine of examining crime scenes, interviewing principals, reconstructing sequences of events, determining the reliability of alibis, consulting with forensic experts, and familiarizing themselves with past and present relationships. The basic pattern of detective fiction is familiar, but the mystery is only a starting point for James’s expansive narrative, which revolves about the partners and staff of a venerable London publisher.

Peverell Press, founded in 1792, is headquartered at Innocent House, an imposing Thames-side Georgian structure to which most staff members come to work via a launch from across the river. Inexplicable acts of seemingly wanton mischief, including altering proofs and stealing artwork, afflict the staid firm during a crucial transition period in which one long-time partner, Jean-Philippe Etienne, retires and gives his shares to his son Gerard, and the other partner, Henry Peverell, dies and wills his holdings equally to Frances, his daughter, and Gerard, now managing director. Newly installed Gerard, worried that Peverell Press will go bankrupt unless it changes its old-fashioned ways, plans to fire staff, move from the imperial headquarters, and cut unprofitable authors. This determination to drag the firm belatedly into the twentieth century disrupts the superficial tranquillity of Innocent House, resurrecting old personality conflicts and begetting new ones.

The first major crisis is the suicide of Sonia Clements, a long-time senior editor to whom Gerard had given notice. She is found asphyxiated in an aerie where Gabriel Dauntsey, as part of Gerard’s housecleaning, has been reviewing the publishing company’s archives. In this same venue Gerard’s body later is discovered in bizarre circumstances that bring Dalgliesh and his young team—Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Inspector Daniel Aaron—to Innocent House.

Sonia Clements, Dalgliesh learns, was Henry Peverell’s mistress for eight years, so her death is easily explained as the act of a grieving, lonely woman confronted with the additional trauma of losing her job. The suicide is relevant to the plot because Gerard’s killer uses Clements’ modus operandi and almost succeeds in masking the murder but for the need to justify the act to Gerard, which complicates the scheme and leads Dalgliesh to rule out suicide. The suspects are close at hand in Innocent House—four partners, the accountant, the receptionist, Gerard’s secretary, a disaffected author—and everyone has a motive.

For example, Gerard’s sister Claudia, like the other partners, does not support his plan to forsake Innocent House, and she must approve before the move can take place; nevertheless, when she pleads for a large sum of money so her lover can buy an antique business, Gerard refuses. Claudia is her brother’s heir, but he is engaged, so she may see her financial prospects diminishing if he marries. Frances Peverell, the last of her family and Gerard’s former lover, is affronted not only by his plan to destroy Peverell Press traditions but also by his intent to wed a noblewoman. Senior editor James de Witt, with the firm since he left Oxford University and in love with Frances Peverell, believes that Gerard led a promising young author to contract acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Gabriel Dauntsey, also a partner and now in his seventies, for years has been responsible for the Peverell Press poetry list. Once a promising poet but now forgotten, he sees not only his poetry domain in jeopardy under Gerard’s regime but also his home, for he lives in a company flat next to Innocent House.

These and others have secrets and sometimes lie to establish or support others’ alibis. Dalgliesh has come across such a crowd before and is very much the leader of his team, but in Original Sin he has more substantive assistance than in earlier cases. His young associates may be relegated to doing legwork, but Miskin and Aaron make major contributions, and the latter—a new member of Dalgliesh’s Special Squad—not only discovers the revelatory evidence but also tracks down the murderer. Daniel Aaron is a major player in the novel, and James devotes considerable time to him, making much of the fact that he is Jewish, largely indifferent to this heritage, and at odds with his family, who are ashamed of his job. The second and less favored son, he joined the police as an act of defiance against his parents, whereas his older brother had gone to university, read law, and been called to the bar. Aaron wants to apologize for rejecting his faith and is haunted by visions of naked people—young, middle-aged, elderly—moving en masse into World War II gas chambers.

For much of the book, James’s portrait of this alienated young man seems peripheral, an interesting digression of questionable relevance. Because Dalgliesh thinks that the answer to Gerard’s murder lies in the past and that vital evidence could be something in writing, Aaron embarks upon the task of checking documents in the archives room, searching for an unknown clue but motivated by an intense desire to prove himself. His search uncovers an unsigned manuscript, a proposal for a novel provisionally titled “Original Sin.” Set in Vichy France between 1940 and 1944, the book is to deal with a Jewish mother and her twins, who are hidden by friends and given false papers but then betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, where they are murdered. The writer proposes to “explore the effect of this betrayal—one small family among thousands of the victims—on the woman’s husband, on the betrayed and on the betrayers,” and the unsigned manuscript incorporates the author’s extensive research, such as testimony from survivors. The documentation reveals that Jean-Philippe Etienne, a community Resistance leader, betrayed Sophie Dauntsey and her four-year-old twins Martin and Ruth, a photograph of whom also is in the file. Etienne admitted his action at the time but claimed that it had been necessary for a greater purpose: to maintain the Germans’ goodwill while working underground against them.

Having found evidence against Gabriel Dauntsey which confirms Dalgliesh’s suspicions, Aaron keeps quiet about his discovery and decides to confront the man. This leads him on a car chase as Dauntsey, having just killed Claudia and abducted Frances, heads toward Etienne’s retirement home, where he asks Etienne to acknowledge the betrayal. The old man, asking how he could be expected to remember specific names, responds, “I did what was necessary at the time. A great number of French lives depended on me. It was important that the Germans continued to trust me if I were to get my allocation of paper, ink and resources for the underground press.”

When Dauntsey justifies his own actions by saying he killed a son and daughter to avenge the killing of a son and daughter, Etienne taunts him: “Justice should be speedy as well as effective. Justice doesn’t wait for fifty years.” Dauntsey counters: “Time takes away our strength, our talent, our memories, our joys, even our capacity to grieve. Why should we let it take away the imperative of justice?”

Finally, Etienne asks why Dauntsey tried to purge guilt by murdering innocent people and then devastates his accuser with startling information:

If you want to act like God, Gabriel, you should first ensure that you have the wisdom and knowledge of God. I have never had a child. . . . I am totally infertile. My wife needed a son and a daughter and to satisfy her maternal obsession I agreed to provide them. Gerard and Claudia were adopted in Canada and brought back with us to England. They are not related by blood to each other or to me.

Throughout this climactic scene, Aaron is an observer “isolated in a moral quarantine”; he does prevent Dauntsey from walking off to kill himself. When Dalgliesh arrives, he asks, “You let him go deliberately? He didn’t break free?” Aaron responds, “No, sir. He didn’t break free. . . . But he’s free now.”

He admits to Kate Miskin: “I couldn’t bear to see him handcuffed, in the dock, in prison. I wanted to give him the chance to take his own path home.” Whereas she laments that he has ruined his career, he focuses on Etienne’s indifference to the Dauntseys’ fate, his lack of remorse, and his belief that they were expendable. When she asks about the innocent author whom Dauntsey killed, Aaron counters: “You’re so confident, aren’t you, Kate. So certain you know what’s right. It must be comforting, never having to face a moral dilemma. The criminal law and police regulations: they provide all you need, don’t they?” He then returns to the house to retrieve, for himself, the old photograph of Dauntsey’s family.

Daniel Aaron, then, is at the thematic center of Original Sin, an outsider who confronts the awesome ambiguity of issues that James develops. Others in the novel are confident about their moral stances, but Aaron appreciates the complexity of these matters, and this awareness disturbs him. His Jewishness heightens his sensibility in this instance, but long before he knows where the case is heading, he comes across as introspective and acutely concerned with matters of morality and the difficulty of reaching definitive moral conclusions. Unlike most detectives, Aaron cannot always allow evidence, exhibits, and trials to take precedence. In this novel of original sins—betrayal of the marriage vow and in the Holocaust—Daniel Aaron stands as a touchstone by which everyone else should be judged.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. February 23, 1995, p. B3.

The Economist. CCCXXXIV, February 4, 1995, p. 81.

London Review of Books. XVI, December 22, 1994, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1995, p. 13.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 11, 1994, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 2, 1995, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXI, March 6, 1995, p. 126.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 21, 1994, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. February 24, 1995, p. A8.

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