There are two original sins in P.D. James’s 1994 Original Sin. One is central to the mystery.  The other is a mournful shadow of history.

The story also features the manuscripts of two novels — one, awful; the other, deadly — two suicides, four faked suicides, a rogue cop, an Italian mansion on the banks of the Thames, a World War II French Resistance hero, a very old family publishing business, a series of malicious pranks, an aged poet, several lovers and ex-lovers, a revenge scheme of biblical proportions, four murders, a novelist dying of AIDS, an uptight accountant and a long, silly-looking cloth snake called Hissing Sid as well as betrayals and lies by the dozen.

That’s probably enough plot elements for two or three books.  Yet, for James, the focus isn’t on plot but on the psychological make-up of her characters, on the way their personalities and idiosyncrasies interact to create the stuff of everyday life in addition to the twists and turns of the mystery.

Original Sin is James’s ninth novel featuring the poet-cop Commander Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police of New Scotland Yard, but, for the second book in a row, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on stage.  He was at the center of things in the 1986 book, A Taste for Death, and will be again for the 1997 book A Certain Justice. But, for a decade, James, it seems, wanted to take some time off from Dalgliesh.

In the 1989 novel Devices and Desires, another book with a lot going on, he is a bystander on the edges of several murders while on the Norfolk coast to close up the affairs of his late maiden aunt and decide what to do with her home, a windmill built in 1825.  Other police investigate and, to some extent, solve the crimes, not the famous Scotland Yard detective.

In Original Sin, the police don’t show up until more than a hundred pages, about a quarter of the way, into the book. Dalgliesh is the chief investigator into the brutal carbon monoxide killing of Gerard Etienne, the chairman and managing director of Peverell Press, but James tells much of the police side of the story from the perspective of two of his aides — Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Detective Inspector Daniel Aaron.

Kate and Daniel

Kate has just moved into a new apartment, and her soon-to-be-by-agreement ex-boyfriend is asking if he will see her before he leaves for the U.S.  She says she doesn’t know.

But she did know.  If this case was as important as it promised to be she would be working a sixteen-hour day, perhaps longer.  She would look back on those few hours they had spent together in the flat with pleasure, even with sadness.  But what she was feeling now was something more intoxicating, and she felt it whenever she was called to a new case. This was her job, one she had been trained for, one she did well, one she enjoyed.

Daniel, meanwhile, has gotten the call to join the investigation as he is heading to a small party for his parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary, a gathering he distinctly dreads because his Jewish parents have long been upset that he has chosen not to attend temple and that he works as a police officer.

He thought he knew the root of his discomfort: it lay in envy.  Almost from early childhood he had known that his elder brother was his mother’s favorite son.  She had been thirty-five when David was born and had almost given up hope of a child.  The overwhelming love she had felt for her first-born had been a revelation of such intensity that it had absorbed almost all she had to give in maternal affection.  Coming three years later, he was welcomed but never obsessively desired.


“Into the gas chambers”

Kate and Daniel work well together, but, as any colleagues do, they could get on each other’s nerves.  Such as when they are checking out the alibi on one of the Peverell Press board members.

Daniel has spoken about his Jewishness and about whether he can ask for time off to attend a cousin’s bar mitzvah. He’s conflicted.

Kate, born to an unwed mother who died two days later, was raised grudgingly by a grandmother in a rougher part of London.  The school she attended had children from a dozen different religions which meant that there were many celebrations of one sort or another since, the line went, each religion was equally important.

“I must say that the result was to leave me with the conviction that they were equally unimportant…Perhaps I’m a natural pagan.  I don’t go in for all this emphasis on sin, suffering and judgement.  If I had a God I’d like Him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.”

He said: “I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers.  You might prefer a god of vengeance.  This is the street, isn’t it?”


No throwaway scene

Although this exchange between Kate and Daniel may seem to be a throwaway scene, it does, in fact, contain a key element in what will be a major twist at the end of the novel.

Even so, that is secondary.

James fills Original Sin, as all her books, with exchanges like this and interior monologues like the ones above because her interest is in people, not in the minutiae of crime and crime-solving. She has those telling details about how violence happens and how investigations are carried out, but her preoccupation is with the people who do the violence and who carry out the investigations.

Perhaps the most touching moment in Original Sin comes late in the book when Kate and Dalgliesh are examining the apartment of a murder victim.

She made herself go over to the wardrobe and open its door.  There came out with the rustle of the hanging clothes a smell that brought back other searches, other victims, other rooms, the sweet-sour musty smell of age and failure and death.

She closed its door quickly but not before she had seen the three whisky bottles hidden among the row of shoes.  She thought: There are moments when I hate my job.  But these moments were few and they never lasted long.

It is for her sensitivity to the human animal that I read James and her mysteries, and, I suspect, I’m not alone.

Maybe there are a bit too many plot pieces in Original Sin.  Nonetheless, for moments like Kate’s examination of the victim’s closet, it’s a small price for the reader to pay.


Patrick T. Reardon



Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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