Scanning half a dozen major journals for obituaries devoted to the most important mystery writer of our time, P. D. James (19202014), I was astonished to find that not one of them mentioned her serious Anglo-Catholicism, much less its shaping presence in her fiction. This, despite one murder occurring in a church (A Taste for Death, 1986), a novel set in a theological college (Death in Holy Orders, 2001), another named Original Sin (1994), still another titled directly from the Book or Common Prayer (Devices and Desires, 1989), as well as an apocalyptic Christian allegory (The Children of Men, 1992).
As a strong supporter of the Book of Common Prayer Society, James lamented revisions of its exalted and exalting speech. “Something vital is lost, surely,” she said, “when ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ is translated as ‘Do not be worried and upset.’” “What is it that you want?” asks Fr. Sebastian Morell in Death in Holy Orders. “A Church without mystery, stripped of that learning, tolerance and dignity that were the virtues of Anglicanism? A Church without humility in the face of the ineffable mystery and love of Almighty God?”
With such overt Christian concerns infusing the whole of her fiction, how may we account for the theological obtuseness that reigns in the high places of contemporary Anglophone culture?
Many of James’s sophisticate reviewers don’t care about God, I suspect. For our humanist friends, religion is not for grown-ups. They can be good without God, as they remind us. They wouldn’t be so glib if they read P. D. James as a detective who doubts the human capacity “to be good without God.” Her twenty novels plumb the mysteries of both charity and iniquity. James quotes Adam Dalgliesh, her own master sleuth, on the unwitting Augustinian wisdom that an older detective sergeant once taught him: “All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love. They’ll tell you that the most dangerous is loathing but don’t you believe it, boy: the most dangerous is love.”
A complex admixture of good and evil lies at the moral and religious center of James’s work. Most of her murderers kill for honorable reasonsusually to avenge some prior injustice. Murder, she contends, is the unique crime. It “carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear.” We are at once repelled and attracted to depictions of this supreme offense because the line dividing good and evil bisects every human heart. “Few people opening their door to two grave-faced detectives with a request that they should accompany them to the police station,” she remarked, “would do so without a qualm of unease, however certain they may be of their complete innocence.”
The appeal of detective fiction, James argues, is especially strong in a secular age of drastic disorderin “times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty, when society can be faced with problems which no money, political theories or good intentions seem able to solve or alleviate.” Despairing of any larger religious or social redemption, we can at least rely on murder mysteries to solve individual crimes and bring malefactors to justice.
Such easy comfort is precisely what James refuses to provide. In Devices and Desires, for example, her supremely wise sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, declares that “Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection dignified the individual death, even the death of the least attractive, the most unworthy, mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives man’s perennial fascination with the mystery of his mortality, providing, too, a comforting illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated, order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.”
James’s rejection of all anodynes becomes evident in The Children of Men, her terrifying book of 1992. It’s not the coming of Nietzsche’s “overman” that James fictionally investigates in this apocalyptic novel. She prophesies, instead, the arrival of Nietzsche’s “last man.” Thus spake Zarathustra in 1883: “Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man. . . . The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.”
This mediocre manthis small-souled creature who takes no risks and lacks all couragehas come to dominate Britain in the year 2021. In fact, the entire planet has been struck by a mysterious disease that results in complete infertility. The last human being has been born; there are no more babies. I once had the chance to ask Lady James about the germ of this frightening novel. She said it derived from a news story about the rapidly lowering sperm count in European males. It is as if Nature itself were declaring, “If you refuse to welcome children, you will become unable to do so.”
Macabre things happen in this craven new age where there are no newborn. Kittens are christened in their place. New dolls are dressed up and wheeled about in prams; broken ones are buried ceremoniously in consecrated ground. Women experience false pregnancies and pseudo-births. Churches that have not been entirely abandoned are used for occult rites, animal sacrifices, Black Masses. Flagellants parade in Hyde Park, lacerating their bleeding backs. The senile and the infirm are subjected to a state-sponsored euthanasia program called the Quietus. Other aged folks who no longer “contribute to the well-being of society” are drugged into submission and sent out to sea for drowning. The allegedly benevolent tyrants who rule this British dystopia have gained power not by force but by vote, promising “freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom.”
This latter day Britain is not populated with the “decent godless men” whom T. S. Eliot describes in “Choruses from The Rock”; it is filled with demons of self-indulgence. Government-sponsored pornography is unable to interest heterosexuals in vaginal intercourse. Instead, the National Health Service provides “sensual substitutes” for old-fashioned carnality: “Our ageing bodies are pummeled, stretched, stroked, caressed, anointed, scented,” one character observes. “We are manicured and pedicured, measured and weighed. Lady Margaret Hall has become the massage centre for Oxford and here every Tuesday afternoon I lie on the couch and look out over the still-tended gardens, enjoying my State-provided, carefully-measured hour of sensual pampering.”
Yet James does not leave her readers dispirited. Her title is drawn from Miles Coverdale’s rendering of Psalm 90: “Thou turnest man to destruction: again, thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.” For such a return from destruction to occur, James suggests, Christians will need to make alliance with unbelievers. Here, for instance, a group called the Five Fishes leads a revolt against the benign hell that Britain has become. This tiny cell of subversives consists of two Christians, two atheists, and one agnostic. They are joined by a skeptic named Theo and his lover, a Christian woman named Julian. Having been schooled like everyone else to look only to himself, Theo is surprised to discover that he is willing to sacrifice his own life so that Julian might live. Thus is he swept up into the mystery of charity.
Here perhaps lies the clue to the theological opacity of James’s obituarists. They have peered through their secular lenses for so long that they have difficulty detecting the mysteries of iniquity and charity alike. Yet this is no cause for Christian smugness. James’s detective novels also leave believers with a troubling sense of our own complicity in the world’s crimes. Deeper by far than this burden of guilt is the mysterious charity that abounds in her books. It is meant not for the few but for “all sorts and conditions of men,” as the Prayer Book declares.
Julian gestures at the root of such charity when, in The Children of Men, she declares that “The world is changed not by the self-regarding but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.” The whole of P. D. James’s works appeals to fools who look not primarily to themselves. Without spoiling the plot of her most alarming novel, suffice it to say that it holds out the hope that unto us a child may be born, that unto us a Son may be given afresh, so that we last men may yet be transformed into the image of the First Man.
Ralph C. Wood is professor of theology and literature at Baylor University.