Original Sin

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)