by P.D. James
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95.
IN HIS CELEBRATED 1948 essay on detective fiction, “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden argued that the appeal of crime novels lies in their “dialectic of innocence and guilt.” A seemingly edenic community is discovered to have a murderer in its midst. Various false clues and secondary murders cast suspicion on nearly everyone and thus reveal the falseness of the community's innocence. With the almost miraculous aid of a detective who possesses superior powers of perception, the true criminal is caught and punished, as the community undergoes a catharsis that cleanses its partial guilt and restores its innocence. Hence Auden's conclusion that the detective story, though a worthy genre, is a peculiarly Protestant form of magic: a “fantasy of escape,” built on the Socratic daydream that “sin is ignorance.”
Auden rightly describes the pattern that obtains in the huge preponderance of crime novels—though there have always been some that elude the easy escapist comfort. The novels of P.D. James, for instance, mainly because her victims are not entirely innocent nor her villains entirely guilty. A complex admixture of good and evil lies at the moral and religious center of her work. Blindness to the invisible suffering of others leads the innocent to premature condemnations, while a sharp eye for injustice prompts the guilty to commit heinous acts of their own.
P.D. James' most recent work, The Lighthouse, is her thirteenth Adam Dalgliesh novel, and its final pages are suffused with a valedictory and elegiac quality. Dalgliesh and his associate Kate Miskin are reflecting on the quiet transformation they have undergone while working on Combe Island, the Cornish retreat where they have come to solve two especially gruesome murders. Having long resented her unhappy past, Miskin at last sees herself as a woman with her own bright and independent future, rather than as a mere detective inspector doomed to unrequited love for Dalgliesh. He, in turn, after many years of bachelorhood prompted by wrenching grief over the death of his first wife in childbirth, is finally engaged to Emma Lavenham.
If James follows the example of her mentor, Dorothy L. Sayers, she will have them marry and perhaps even accompany them on their honeymoon, as Sayers followed Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride in Busman's Honeymoon. Yet romantic love has never featured prominently in James' work, and Dalgliesh himself declares near the end, “Truth between lovers should be written, to be weighed at leisure and in solitude, or—better—spoken face to face.”
The Lighthouse also contains surprising autobiographical allusions not often found in the reticent James. The murder victim, Nathan Oliver, is an aging but still celebrated writer whose last novel received only modest reviews and who thus fears that his literary talent has gone into irrevocable decline. James herself is now aged eighty-six, and her previous novel, The Murder Room, did not measure up to the excellence of her best work: Innocent Blood, A Taste for Death, Devices and Desires, Original Sin, A Certain Justice, The Children of Men, Death in Holy Orders. Hence the poignancy of Oliver's plight, as the octogenarian James enters his mind to provide a Pascalian meditation on absence and abandonment:
He felt immeasurably small, as if his mind and body had shrunk and he was alone on a spinning globe looking up into immensity. The stars were there, moving according to the laws of the physical world, but their brilliance was only in his mind, a mind that was failing him, and eyes that could no longer clearly see. He was only sixty-eight, but slowly, inexorably, his light was fading. He felt immensely lonely, as if no other living thing existed. There was no help anywhere on earth, nor on those dead spinning worlds with their illusionary brightness. No one would be listening if he gave way to this almost irresistible impulse [to kill himself] and shouted loud into the unfeeling night, Don't take away my words! Give me back my words!
We must hope that The Lighthouse does not contain James' final words. For four and a half decades, beginning with Cover Her Face in 1962, she has produced a splendid prose built on elegant periodic sentences while also giving careful attention to detail and thus preserving the dense particularity of her characters and crime scenes. James also has a fine moralist's eye for the modern scene, confronting our most intractable problems: from urban blight to terrorist crime, from sexual libertinism to fashionable multiculturalism, from epidemic disease to secularized Christianity and the emptying of the churches.
She has thus offered enduring portraits of small enclaves in which people who have been thrown into close relationship, either by employment or circumstance, make their daily lives together, often in the abiding kindness that leads to friendship, but also in the enduring enmity that leads to murder. She has also evoked the gritty density of the urban London landscape as well as the rural tranquility of coastal England. She is indeed almost Dickensian in her creation of the atmosphere that evokes the character of the crimes. Over the years, Dalgliesh—her poet-sleuth whose understanding of human nature enables him to unravel the skein of clues that solves the crimes—has himself matured, so that he speaks with increasing wisdom, as when he notes, in The Lighthouse, the relationship between his poetry and his detective work: “Wasn't it in the rich soil of a murder investigation, in the fascination of the gradual unveiling of truth, in shared exertion and the prospect of danger, and in the pitiableness of desperate and broken lives that his poetry put out its shoots?”
This last phrase, “the pitiableness of desperate and broken lives,” marks the moral center of James' work. An unapologetic Anglican, James is not embarrassed by the word “pity” and its cognates. Over and again, James creates characters who are not egregiously evil so much as they are desperately pitiable. They have not determined to wreak misery in sheer nihilistic perversity so much as to rectify past wrongs or to revenge festering resentments or to protect endangered loved ones. No one can live without loving, but loving the wrong thing at the wrong time or for the wrong reason produces most of the world's wretchedness. “People mean well when they are doing worst,” declares Kate Miskin, Dalgliesh's assistant, who has had an entirely secular upbringing but whose work as a detective has given her religious insight.
STOIC ENDURANCE IS one of the chief features of James' work, for she regards it as necessary for a religious no less than a secular life. In her autobiographical memoir, Time to Be in Earnest, James salutes our forebears who stoically endured their unblissful marriages, assured that silent suffering also has its rewards: “They had a far smaller expectation of happiness, admittedly, and a far lesser tendency to regard happiness as a right. All our brightly minted social reforms, the sexual liberation since the war, the guilt-free divorce, the ending of the stigma of illegitimacy, have had their shadow side. Today we have a generation of children more disturbed, more unhappy, more criminal, indeed more suicidal than in any previous era. The sexual liberation of adults has been bought at a high price and it is not the adults who have paid it.”
Absent the love of God, James implies, human love also withers. Absent human love grounded in divine charity, marriages are difficult to sustain. Absent marital and thus parental love, children are orphaned in the ultimate, no less than the immediate, sense. Indeed, orphanhood is the moral and spiritual condition of many of James' murderers.
Murder is the unique crime, James often observes, because it destroys its victims. It makes justice impossible—to them at least. Having always aroused doubt, murderous death now makes skepticism acute, as in Dalgliesh's poignant reflection on the corpse of Nathan Oliver:
He was struck, as he had been as a young detective constable on his first murder case, by the absoluteness of death. Once the body was cold and rigor mortis had started its inevitable and predictable progress, it was almost impossible to believe that this stiffening encumbrance of flesh, bone and muscle had ever been alive. No animal was ever as dead as was a man. Was it that so much more had been lost with that final stiffening, not only the animal passions and the urges of the flesh, but the whole encompassing life of the human mind? This body had at least left a memorial to its existence [in Oliver's prize-winning novels], but even that rich legacy of imagination and verbal felicities seemed a childish bagatelle in the face of such ultimate negativity.
The incorrigible fact of human transience often prompts James' characters to seek solace in the relative immutability of carefully crafted things, especially artifacts from the distant past. Dalgliesh is troubled that he has acquired so few of them, wondering what will happen to his own family photographs and furniture when he is gone: “Our parents' generation carried the past memorialized in paint, porcelain, and wood; we cast it off. Even our national history is taught or remembered in terms of the worst we did, not the best.” James also has her characters stave off the irreversibility of death by noticing the changeless flow of the Thames through London or the lastingness of the skies and seas and stars: “The darkness would have been absolute but for the stars. Never had they seemed to Kate more multitudinous, more glittering or so close. They made of the furry darkness a mysterious luminosity.”
Yet neither P.D. James nor her protagonists can find final refuge in nature mysticism. Her own stance can be seen, instead, in Dalgliesh's confession about the sources of his art: “For him as a poet, beauty in nature, in human faces, had never been enough. He had always needed Yeats' foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” James herself has observed, “The greatest mystery of all is the human heart, and that is the mystery with which all good novelists are concerned.” The heart is the region of feeling and emotion because it is first of all the locus of our desires and habits. James is obsessed with murder as the crime that most reveals the heart's disordered loves.
It is a disorder that, in James' fiction, afflicts the virtuous as well as the vicious. If murderers often have a pulpy core—sentimental and self-pitying about their own grievances or the dangers faced by their loved ones—the rest are usually flint-hearted. Writers, for instance, can view the human scene as an object of cold study—as providing mere data for their craft. Adam Dalgliesh worries whether, rather frigidly, he has made crime detection the basis for his art, whether his own poetry has “its roots in the pain, horror and pathetic detritus of the tragic and broken lives which made up his working life.” Nathan Oliver's copyeditor also laments the gelid quality of his boss's imagination: “I don't think he loves anyone but himself. He's a conduit. Emotion flows through him. He can describe but he can't feel, not for other people.”
Either mushiness or hardness of heart prompts nearly all personal sins, James suggests, from the great to the small, from murder to gossip. The only antidote lies in the pity that seeks firm justice while acknowledging that everyone, even the worst, suffers irremediably. What we do with our suffering is what matters. Our sins most often spring not from mere ignorance, James teaches, but from false innocence. Despite Auden's salutary warning, therefore, such detective fiction as hers enables us to confront our real guilt.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.