Writer's Popularity No Mystery: P.D. James Says Her Novels Are Modern Morality Plays

By Careless, Sue | Anglican Journal, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Writer's Popularity No Mystery: P.D. James Says Her Novels Are Modern Morality Plays


Careless, Sue, Anglican Journal


MURDER IS the unique crime. It is the taking away of something which we as humans haven't the power to give and cannot possibly restore. Murder is also a contaminating crime. It touches the lives of every character, even the innocent."

British murder mystery writer P.D. James has spilt a lot of ink and fictitious blood. And as vice-president of the Prayer Book Society in England, her religious and moral sensibility permeates much of her own dark prose.

"The mystery novel is a modern morality play," she said. "It is about the restoration of order out of disorder and about the attempts of human beings to achieve justice, even though the justice they achieve is only the terrible justice of men and not the divine justice of God." Her fourteenth novel, A Certain Justice, particularly underscores this point.

Baroness James (she was so honoured for her fiction) believes she can be a serious writer within the restraints of the detective novel. And the critics agree.

Globe and Mail crime books reviewer Margaret Cannon reads 500 to 600 novels a year. Most remain a blur, but she recalls Ms. James's works with remarkable clarity. "The best writers are always worth rereading," said Ms. Cannon, who reads Ms. James again and again on the strength of her characters and the rich complexity of their relationships. "Her characters are totally realized. Her minor ones are particularly memorable."

Ms. Cannon, herself an Anglican, appreciates how Ms. James's novels explore "the big themes of heaven, hell, death and judgment. Her people must confront their mortality, their mistakes. Ms. James doesn't walk away from evil."

A Taste for Death "transcends the genre and is absolutely the best thing Ms. James ever wrote," Ms. Cannon said. "It is a brilliantly realized study of sin and redemption. The incredible characters are all flawed; they each have their own sins to expiate. All come to redemption; all are saved from themselves. In the last third of the book, the `whodunit' doesn't matter. Motivation is more important. In a split second, by a cardinal act of mercy, a soul is saved, although all are forced to pay a terrible price. A Taste for Death is P.D. James's most severe, most ruthless work. Fifty years from now, it will still be standing."

Ms. James's detective hero, Cmdr. Adam Dalgleish, is a clergyman's son who respects people of faith. Ms. James describes Dalgleish as a "reverent agnostic. He's respectful of the Christian religion and of the church of which his father was part and in which he was brought up. …

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