By Wood, Ralph C.
The Christian Century , Vol. 127, No. 9
THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury recently observed that "P. D. James is our most Augustinian writer." James's reflections in her 2009 book Talking, About Detective Fiction justify Rowan Williams's claim. She writes that murder mysteries have an immense appeal because they treat the final crime: the intentional taking of human life, an evil that allows no earthly reparation. The title of one of her own widely admired murder mysteries, Original Sin, reveals her conviction that homicide has its roots in a primeval twisting of our native desire for God.
Such acts of violence and mayhem are committed not primarily by malefactors from the underworld, James demonstrates, but often by the prosperous and the upright. "The successful middle-class character is more often than not the murderer," she declares. "In general, the butler didn't do it." James's own mystery novels are so compelling because they disclose that, like all other sinners, murderers can justify their ways and means. Her mainstream killers do not act arbitrarily; nor do they kill for the nihilistic frisson of watching their victims squirm at the approach of death. Instead, they slay with a cause, at least as they see it: to avenge the unrequited love, to protect the innocent, to provide for the indigent, and so on.
Evil, for P. D. James as for St. Augustine, is to be understood as privatio boni, the loss or absence or perversion of the good, the deformation of true being. The bishop of Hippo developed this revolutionary insight from the Neoplatonists, and it became a staple of Christian thought from Boethius forward. Augustine's purpose was to demonstrate that the universe is God's good creation, that it is rational at its core, and thus that evil is not a gross absurdity.
The doctrine of original sin does not mean that the world is madly, hopelessly lost--so that human nature becomes so utterly depraved that it must be replaced. Pervasive and all-infectious though it is, sin makes a sort of sense. Its tangled logic can be reordered to the logos of God, as the Old Adam is reborn, restored and made alive in the New. The world's malignancy does not stand, therefore, as a Manichaean rival to God. Though capable of immense harm and destruction, evil cannot finally triumph. Not even the strongholds of hell can prevent God's kingdom from breaking down their gates in ultimate victory.
James would seem, at first sight, to confine her Augustinianism to her own detective novels. She worries, in fact, that murder mysteries often serve as an easy anodyne, a spiritual narcotic, a pleasurable escape--sedating us against real evils, both without and within, while inviting us to the cerebral delight of discovering "whodunit." James admits that her own career as a crime writer was launched when her parents read "Humpty Dumpty" to her at age five: immediately she asked, "Was he pushed?"
Murder fiction devoted mainly to the intricacies of plot rarely invites rereading. Readers of detective fiction often circulate their books because the crime and the criminal, once found out, offer no reason for further reflection. The momentary intellectual thrill of matching wits with the detective writer has led highbrow critics from Matthew Arnold to Edmund Wilson to denounce the genre as unworthy of serious minds. James cites Agatha Christie as a virtuoso of the complex plot. Yet she also vindicates the grande dame of murder mysteries: "Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life in both peace and war for millions throughout the world, and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect."
Even so, James admires a worthier kind of mystery fiction, the kind that has moral and spiritual complexity. She traces its rise to Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) and Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century. Its golden age came between the two world wars, and its masters were Arthur Conan Doyle, G. …