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Calculating 'Sin' Gives Guilt-Free Good Read

By Natasha Wimmer


Original Sin

by P.D. James.

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., $24.50

Original Sin is wicked. It's enticing. It is, in fact, a beautifully calculated read, proving once again P.D. James' mastery of her craft. After the release of The Children of Men in 1993, the author's first non-mystery novel, some fans worried she might have abandoned the cloak-and-dagger genre for good. Original Sin proves them resoundingly wrong. Not only does it mark the return of James' ever-popular detective, Adam Dalgleish, it is one of the most mystery-like of her mysteries.

As in all of the best whodunits, murderous motives abound. No one is very surprised when Gerard Etienne, arrogant young managing director of London's Peverell Press, is found dead with a snake around his neck. Most of the suspects in the case benefit from his death in one way or another: the question is, who is capable of committing murder?

Gerard, at the time of his death, had been planning to sell Innocent House, the Press' historic home, and his four reluctant partners come under close scrutiny. Frances Peverell, Gerard's discarded mistress and heir to the Peverell name, will permit the sale of the Press only over her dead body--or Gerard's. James deWitt, fiction editor, may be willing to help Frances. Claudia Etienne, Gerard's sister, needs money her brother controls to satisfy the "boy toy" she wants to marry. Gabriel Dauntsey, poet and poetry editor, faces eviction from his home of thirty years if Gerard lives. Other dubious characters include Esme Carling, a rejected writer, Miss Blackett, an ill-treated secretary, and Sydney Bartrum, a desperate accountant.

In this morass of motive, the common element is place. All characters in the novel, innocent or guilty, are tied to Innocent House. As always, James' descriptions are elaborate, elegant, and evocative--they hypnotize the unsuspecting reader. Several of her earlier novels are set in hospitals or clinics, close bound communities associated with death or abnormality. Innocent House provides a less obviously macabre setting. This gilded faux Venetian palace on the banks of the Thames is as unexpected as a Jamesian corpse and as grotesquely gaudy.

Suspects, setting, death--Part One, the aptly titled "Foreword to Murder," whets the reader's appetite. The discerning P.D. James fan sits up and takes notice when the "tall dark figure" of Adam Dalgleish makes a striking appearance in Part Two.

Dalgleish joins a long line of detective heroes, from Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn. Like his predecessors, he is an educated investigator and a deeply sensitive individual. Unlike earlier detectives, he is a professional policeman, a published poet, and he harbors a secret tragedy--early in his career, his wife died in childbirth. He avoids romance and even short-term affairs.

Readers always ask if Dalgleish will rendez-vous with Cordelia Gray, James' female private-eye, but James refuses to comment on any possible future entanglements. She also denies any personal attachment to the Commander, pooh-poohing parallels to Dorothy Sayer's well-known infatuation with her own detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Original Sin doesn't let the reader get as close and personal with Dalgleish as in previous novels, focusing instead on his detective inspectors, Kate Miskin and Daniel Aaron. Her detectives often become emotionally involved in the cases they investigate. In Original Sin, it is Daniel Aaron, more than Dalgleish, who is drawn in. Although Aaron is not as satisfyingly developed as his superior has been in previous novels, the plot is strong enough to carry him along, and the reader will experience only the slightest regret that Dalgleish is not more in evidence.

James makes up for Dalgleish's aloofness with a host of some of her most successful characters. Victim herself of an unhappy child-hood, her best creations are solitary, melancholic types, often orphans, and here the mechanics of solitude are perceptively explored and beautifully described.

Frances Peverell, a figure of "gentle, old-fashioned formality," lives a flight of stairs away from the equally reserved Gabriel Dauntsey. They see "less of each other than if they had lived miles apart." Dalgleish recognizes Jean-Philippe Etienne, Gerard's father, as the "true recluse" he himself sometimes shows signs of becoming. Isolation in the wake of death is more than poignant, and the abandoned homes of the murder victims, as James describes them, provide the most eloquent counterpoint to living loneliness.

In spite of the delicate treatment of the dark side of life, Original Sin is less murky in tone than earlier novels, and as a result, the heavy ending seems a little out of place. What is essentially a mystery acquires a thriller denouement, and Daniel Aaron's awkward character must carry the weight of it. Equally ungainly are a few of the bows to contemporary issues, which James usually handles so well. But this will only become faintly evident after the first shock of the novel's punch fades away. The value of James' efforts on the Pure Novel Scale remain to be calculated, but their value on the Pure Reader Scale is assured.

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