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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,317 words.)