James, P. D. Original Sin.

NY: Knopf, 1994.

James’s highly popular detective series featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard and his specialist homicide team has evolved over time and has improved with each novel she’s written. This is about the thirteenth offering and it’s first-rate.

Peverell Press, Britain’s oldest book publisher, has been holding forth for two centuries at Innocent House, a replica Venetian palazzo on the Thames, but the last male Peverell is gone now and the company is in the reformist hands of Gerard Etienne, son of a hero of the French Resistance during World War II. He’s insisting they sell the building (which is too expensive to maintain) and move down-river to Docklands if they’re to survive, as well as sacking several older employees. The members of the Board aren’t sure all this is necessary, but Gerard is being rather callous about it all and they definitely don’t like that. Someone has been playing vicious pranks around the office, too — losing the illustrations for a new book, cancelling book-signing events, and so on. And then Gerard turns up dead, and with the office mascot, a toy stuffed snake, crammed in his mouth. Dalgliesh is called in, assisted by the ambitious DI Kate Miskin and the new boy, DI David Aaron (whose Jewishness actually will feature in the dénouement), and they begin the long, complex process of interviewing, gathering physical evidence, thinking about it all, and talking it over with each other. But that’s only the first murder and the case becomes more harrowing with each passing day. The field of suspects is limited and the method of the murder is soon worked out, but what was the motive? Other than hatred of Etienne, which everyone else at Innocent House shared to some extent, partners and staff alike.

The author follows the method she has developed over the years of digging deeply into the background and character of each of the major (and many of the minor) players, including telling the story from their various points of view. Some readers, I know, don’t care for this. They want her to get on with it — which would reduce the size of the book by at least half — but I quite enjoy it. Because this is more than “just” a detective story. It’s a full-blown novel of manners, with all the narrative trimmings. It’s also an extended rumination on moral ambivalence and the nature of guilt. In other words, this ain’t Agatha Christie. And that’s why James’s work is some of the best available and has been for several decades now.


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