Publish and be murdered

John Lee

Original Sin by P D James Faber $225 PD James' experiment with science fiction in her last novel, The Children of Men, was a disappointment. When I reviewed it, I stopped short of saying that I yearned for another detective novel with her famous policeman Adam Dalgliesh. That could have implied she was a writer with severe technical limitations; and nothing could be further from the truth.

However, for all Dalgliesh fans, the good news is that with Original Sin, the Commander is back, as sharp as ever.

This time he is called in to investigate a suspicious death at the publishing house of Peverell Press. Founded in 1792, it operates from a garish mock-Venetian building beside the Thames.

For Dalgliesh, it is a tough case, because there is no clear evidence of murder and the possible suspects have good alibis. All the partners had motives for killing managing director, Gerard Etienne. He wanted to modernise the company and didn't care who he hurt to get his way. Even his sister Claudia, who shed few tears over his bizarre death, stood to gain from murder as she has inherited his shares.

James is meticulous with her attention to detail. People and places are described in precise terms, a constant feature of her novels: the thorough author describing the investigation of New Scotland Yard's most thorough officer.

Agatha Christie had a superb imagination, but her style was awkward and tedious. James raises the crime/detective genre to the level of serious fiction because strength of plot is matched by elegant writing which puts her right up with Britain's leading living novelists. She has a perfect ear, capturing the atmosphere of a scene so well that you feel as if you are seeing and hearing it.

She understands the hothouse world of institutions, with their petty jealousies, having worked as an administrator for the National Health Service. In Shroud for a Nightingale it was a hospital, in The Black Tower, a nursing home. Now it is a publishing house, which with its long history, has become an institution of sorts.

In Original Sin, she borrows a device used by Dickens in Bleak House, with the River Thames becoming a central feature of the book.

Here, the river acts as a thread, giving cohesion to the novel and setting the mood. It is thick, dark, heavy and, at times, threatening. Far from being a waterway teeming with life, it comes to symbolise the violent deaths, both past and present, which have taken place at Peverell's headquarters, the incongruously named Innocent House.

James loathes hyperbole or melodrama and the psychological makeup of her killers is always complex. Sometimes, they are calculating and evil; sometimes, normally decent individuals driven to desperate measures. In Original Sin, it could be the slighted author, the bitter partner, the exploited personal assistant. She leaves most options open until the final chapter.