[(review date 2 April 1995) In the following review, Malone praises James's Original Sin as a well-written mystery novel.]
The latest novel from P. D. James, Original Sin, is a portrait of Peverell Press, a venerable London publisher situated in Innocent House, a mock Venetian palace on the bank of the Thames. It is a complex, compelling novel with a murder investigation for a plot. Those who admire the book are likely to say it is “more than a mystery,” but this fine novel needs no such excuses. How useful can our definition of the murder mystery be if every well-written instance must be praised by saying it “transcends the genre”? It is a porous form indeed if it can stretch from Charlie Chan to Crime and Punishment, and can include among its practitioners authors as various as Mickey Spillane and the stately Baroness James of Holland Park.
Original Sin does not zip by (the first murder is not revealed until a hundred pages into the story), but flows along in 19th-century style, wide, deep, magisterial, like the Thames that so atmospherically fills its pages. Indeed, as in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, the Thames becomes a powerful character in this novel. It serves not only to transport the players, hide the bodies and expose the secrets, but to place this narrative quite consciously within a literary tradition and a national history symbolized by the immemorial traffic of the Thames “bearing on its strong tide the whole history of England,” from the Vikings and Romans to the great port of sailing ships and smoky Victorian bustle.
It is typical of Lady James to use a single setting (often a city business, rather than the weekend manor house of the Golden Age mystery) as a way to cluster her characters. In A Mind to Murder it was an upscale psychiatric clinic. Here it is an old-fashioned “gentlemen's” publishing company near bankruptcy. Innocent House (on the site of a walk that once led defendants found innocent from magistrate's court to freedom) is a beautiful Georgian building, four stories of glowing marble and a grand hall with a painted ceiling depicting “the curving river plumed with the sails of high-masted ships and small cherubs with pouted lips...