Original Sin (P.D. James)

  • By P.D. James
  • First published: UK: Faber & Faber, 1994; US, Knopf, 1994

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Old sins cast long shadows in P.D. James’s twelfth crime novel. The Peverell Press is the oldest publishing firm in Britain, based in Innocent House, a magnificent mock-Venetian palazzo on the Thames. But the writing may be on the wall. The company, founded as a Victorian gentleman’s hobby, is struggling to keep afloat in the cut-throat Nineties. The new chairman and managing director, handsome young Gerard Etienne, is determined to modernize – despite the opposition of his partners. Meanwhile, a practical joker is at work, stealing manuscripts and sabotaging authors’ signings; and an editor commits suicide. Office rumour whispers that Innocent House is haunted; the founder’s wife committed suicide a century before, and her ghost apparently walks the corridors by night. Then murder strikes: Etienne is found dead, half-naked, a stuffed snake twisted around his neck. Adam Dalgliesh encounters a viper’s nest of motives modern and decades-old before he expels the serpent from this literary Eden.

 Original Sin is late, almost great James. Here is the detective novel in all its magnificence: a victim foreordained, surrounded by people who benefit from his death; a closed circle of suspects; murder in a venerable institution-cum-workplace; a long, slow build-up to the murder; intimate vignettes of suspects; skilful motive building; an in-depth, detailed investigation (see the list of oddities in Chapter 38); and two further murders. It is perhaps James’s tightest whodunnit in more than a decade; A Taste for Death is superb, but the murderer is known relatively early on; Devices and Desires sprawls.

The book is in direct descent from the literate detective stories of E.C.R. Lorac, Ngaio Marsh, and Nicholas Blake. James pays homage to her illustrious forebears’ publishing mysteries – perhaps too much so. Death by carbon monoxide inhalation recalls Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge (1936); well and good. But the murderer, the motive, and a victim are the same as in Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter (1957), a good average Strangeways. It’s a bit rich for James to include a crime writer who steals ideas from other (dead) writers and adds her own twists to them.

But man was not meant to live by plot alone. As always, James excels at people, relationships and place. The characters are more agreeable than in some of her books; many are, as so often in James, introverts who cherish their solitude, and don’t want to be burdened with emotional entanglements; this time, she grants two of them a happy ending. She conveys sympathetically the plight of two lonely women whose work gives them meaning, but who find that the world no longer wants them. Elsewhere, James is dryly funny: a splendid charwoman (well aware she’s a ‘character’), or Sgt. Robbins’s encounter with a formidable copy editor.

The young temp Mandy Price brings youthful spunk to the book. It is through her eyes that we see Innocent House on the first day – a place of wonder and enchantment: “four storeys of coloured marble and golden stone which, as the light changed, seemed subtly to change colour, brightening, then shading to a deeper gold”; its domed ceiling a fantastical landscape of palaces, towers, churches and cherubs. That’s before she finds her first corpse.

The ending, too, is remarkable. It begins with a flurry of action: a third murder, the (rather abrupt) reveal of the criminal, and a desperate chase through the back roads of East Anglia. It ends as an imitate drama, as characters make difficult, even destructive, choices, and are shattered by revelations…


We will discuss some of the themes of James’s novel. This includes aspects of the solution, including the murderer’s identity.

…the midnight confrontation with an amoral, reclusive veteran; a life dedicated to a futile revenge; a policeman’s choice that jeopardises his career; and an atheist Jew’s reckoning with the Holocaust.

Original Sin is ‘about’ inherited guilt – an idea James implicitly rejects as irrational and inhumane. She critiques the Hammurabic / Old Testament notion of retribution: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… A son and a daughter for a son and a daughter.” (A notion, incidentally, that the Jews themselves repudiated.) Both children are ‘punished’ for a crime of which they are innocent. That ‘justice’ is monomania; it is also a lie – the obsession that defined a life turns out to be as treacherous as the quicksand in which the murderer drowns.

Even Innocent House – the beautiful Venetian palace – is built on sin; its Victorian builder, it turns out, murdered his wife to secure her money. Margery Allingham made a similar idea the crux of her Flowers for the Judge, a Victorian secret at the heart of the firm that erupts into modern murder; for James, it is another parallel, another ancestral crime.

Original Sin is also about children’s relationships with their parents, and the need to live up to that image. (God, of course, is the ultimate father-figure.) Jean-Philippe Etienne is a war hero – or a Nazi collaborator. He is worshipped by Gerard, proud of the genes he inherited; the revelation at 14 that he was adopted, James implies, creates the ruthless Etienne. Similarly, Frances Peverell has never lived up to her father’s expectations; unable to be herself, unable to be intimate, pretending a courage she lacks, and an interest in topics she does not feel, they grow apart; afraid of disappointing him, she becomes timid and reserved. She finds in some ways a substitute father in Gabriel Dauntsey; when he kidnaps her, he cures the claustrophobia her real father caused, and gives her the courage to face death and to live.

NOTES: 301: Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey. 342: Mrs Carling reads Golden Age women writers


1994 Faber & Faber

After her acclaimed novel The Children of Men P. D. James returns to the genre she has made so distinctively her own, the classical detective story, and to her maverick poet detective, Adam Dalgliesh.

Original Sin is set in a long-established publishing firm housed in a dramatic mock-Venetian palace on the Thames. The Peverell Press, founded in 1792, is ripe for change. The chairman, Henry Peverell, has just died; his French partner, Jean-Philippe Etienne, has retired and Etienne’s ruthless son Gerard has taken over as chairman and managing director. Gerard Etienne has made enemies: his discarded mistress, a rejected and humiliated author, his colleagues and threatened members of the Peverell staff. When he is found dead on the premises, his body bizarrely desecrated, there is no shortage of suspects. Adam Dalgliesh and his team – Kate Miskin and Daniel Aaron – are confronted with a puzzle of extraordinary ingenuity and complexity, and a murderer who is prepared to kill again.

The river Thames runs like a unifying theme through a novel which demonstrates yet again P. D. James’s power to evoke atmosphere, sustain horror and suspense and create a range of fully-realized characters caught up in the tangled aftermath of murder. Original Sin is both a brilliantly constructed detective story and a novel of extraordinary power.

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