Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Murder in the Vicarage

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Murder in the Vicarage

Article excerpt

Murder in the Vicarage THE LIGHTHOUSE by P.D. james Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Ralph C. Wood

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 dieir 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! …

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