Thursday, January 7, 2010

Original Sin

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Original Sin (Faber & Faber, 1994).

If I ever had the opportunity to talk with PD James, I'd ask her about her habit of creating a setting, backstory and supporting cast for her characters and then upending them with almost every new novel. Consider, in the first six Adam Dalgliesh books, we already had two set when he's meant to be on leave from work, and the character had three different assistants in the other four. In the seventh book, we see him given a new task force and two assistant detective inspectors. The eighth is yet another murders-on-holiday story, and while the ninth, Original Sin, again uses the task force and DI Kate Miskin, the third member of the team is replaced and, without giving too much away, it's very unlikely that we'll see DI Aaron back for book ten. Anybody looking for the security of Watson and 221B Baker Street is looking in the wrong place with PD James.

This time, Dalgliesh is sent out to investigate the murder of Gerard Etienne, the managing director of Peverell Press, an old and prestigious publisher who've been dealing with a series of ugly office pranks. When one of these results in the cancellation of a book signing by a cantankerous writer, whose latest mystery novel has just been rejected by the Press, Dalgliesh has found an interesting motive, but the novelist is just one of several suspects with ironclad alibis...

Honestly, this one left me a little unsatisfied. Perhaps James was too successful in crafting a character, Etienne's control freak of a sister, who is so unpleasant that I was hoping unnaturally that the killer would strike again, or perhaps there were hints that she was repeating herself. Miskin's and Aaron's interaction, and their thoughts about their intensely private boss, was reminiscent of Miskin's and DCI Massingham's interplay in the superior A Taste for Death. There's no whopper of a twist like I enjoyed in Devices and Desires, although the insights into the very different corporate culture are completely fascinating to me. Americans just talk about our kids all the time; I can't imagine not knowing that a co-worker that I've known for many years has a grown daughter, yet it's vital to the plot that absolutely nobody at Peverell Press ever really gotten to know one man to learn this point.

It's really not fair to James to compare everything to A Taste for Death, but indeed I dropped this series in the mid-nineties because I did not believe the two that followed it ever measured up. Time proved me completely and totally wrong with Devices, which is a corker, but this one really must be considered a lesser entry in her canon. James creates a world that's very vivid and honest, particularly the realistic, sympathetic depiction of a nineteen year-old biker who, while efficient and praiseworthy, aspires to nothing in life more than office temp work, but the mystery seems humdrum and, frankly, the sort of thing Dalgliesh should have been able to solve with a lot less work. Not recommended.

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