Sunday, November 20, 2016

Book Review: Original Sin

Original Sin
P. D. James

I have always thought that P. D. James was vastly overrated. She'd have been a better mystery writer if she'd practiced what she preached. However, I've been doing some (dare I say) professional investigations of mystery writing--reading analytically, in other words, with an eye towards how it all works. I hadn't read any of James's work in decades. She's considered an important writer. So . . .

The first thing that struck me is that I can see why James was the darling of the lit-crit types. She focuses heavily on character. Every single significant character, and a number of the minor ones, gets five to ten pages of backstory. The backstory inevitably some lugubrious tale of how life, fate, daddy, poverty, religion, etc. etc. etc. made the character miserable and insecure and neurotic. They're all differently neurotic, but they're all neurotic. (Except for some characters who are Not of the Correct Social/Professional Standing, who are permitted to be ordinary.) A good deal of it strikes me as faintly absurd, as for example:
She yearned for his love and approbation. She had listened dutifully, had asked the right questions, had instinctively known that this was an interest he assumed that she would share. But she realized now that the deception had only added guilt to her natural reserve and timidity, that the river had become more terrifying because she could not acknowledge its terrors and her relationship with her father more distant because it was founded on a lie.
This is, as the British put it, over-egging the pudding.

But, okay, the writing itself is generally pretty good. Sometimes it's very good, particularly when James is doing description and mood. The setup is good. The pacing flows along nicely. We have a variety of motives and a variety of suspects and some alibis. I was starting to enjoy myself.

Until page 504. That's when the murderer reveals himself. The detectives don't do anything. The killer just pops out and says, in effect: hi, I did it. For all the good they do, Adam Dalgliesh and his high-powered team of investigators might as well have stayed home polishing their backstories.

I am not exaggerating here. The body is discovered on page 141. From the narrative point of view, nothing that occurs in the next 363 pages makes any damn difference whatsoever.

In fact, the only thing our detectives actually detect is the motive. This they eventually discover by the brilliant deductive technique of sitting down and reading the documents in the room where the body was found. Having made this Socratic leap of intellect, they promptly use the discovery to FAIL TO PREVENT ANOTHER MURDER.

Gad! The master criminals of England must be quaking in their boots!

Oh, and that motive? It's one of these. (Discovering the motive will probably spoil the book for you; if you still want to read it, don't follow the link!)

Original Sin is, for all its literary aspirations and elegant writing, pretentious drivel. It does precisely the things that P. D. James herself said that a mystery novel ought never do. Let me use her own analogy against her: if you are a poet, and you make the deliberate decision to write a sonnet, you should then actually follow the rules of the form. Don't whinge about how you can't express yourself in fourteen lines. Don't go around boasting that you've expanded the possibilities of the form by writing a limerick and calling it a sonnet. You  made the decision to write in this form. Do it or go away.

There are very few people who know how to write classical-form mysteries nowadays. Right now only Aaron Elkins and Steve Hockensmith are on my list. If you discover another, please let me know.


  1. Edward Gorey, a great lover of mysteries, said: "All the detective writers I used to read are dead, or else have gotten so arty I can't bear them any more, like P.D. James."

    1. Wise man. To be fair, I could learn to like the arty bits if the rest of the story held up, but it doesn't. The combination reads like an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to disguise the fact that James didn't know what she was doing.