Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Original Sin by P.D. James

I like P.D. James.

I like detective stories.

Ergo, I ought to have liked this book, and I did. (I stayed up too late more than once while I was reading it!) I also like my fiction laced with philosophy, and James obliges this taste, too.

Aside from the basic murder story, which must be solved because Adam Dalgliesh (detective and published poet) is on the case, this is a book about atheism. I was rather surprised by all the references to religion and atheism, but that's because I don't always pay attention to things I should: the title of the book is Original Sin, after all.

You've got dyed-in-the-wool atheists, a Jewish atheists (who feels he ought to apologize to God for not believing in him--traditional Jewish guilt), Anglican atheists, and, finally, not-atheists.

I'm still not sure I have entirely grasped P.D. James's message, but this is what I think it is. Man requires a god. Rejecting Diety by refusing to believe in it (as if that makes a difference) means that something else will stand in first place, and most often, that is man himself. In this book, we see various characters "playing God"--making judgments that are not truly theirs to make.

One of the characters--the murderer, and one of the atheists--declares, "I don't believe that our existence here has a meaning or that we have any future after death. Since there is no God there can be no divine justice. We have to make justice for ourselves and make it here on earth." (Oddly enough, I'm not sure the concept of justice has any meaning at all apart from divine authority.)

And he is answered, "If you want to act like God, you should first ensure that you have the wisdom and knowledge of God." Because he has made a terrible mistake, and the "justice" that he thought he was enacting was no justice at all.

One of the characters observes a couple of people praying in church, and "wondered what it was they found in this quiet place and whether, if he had come with more humility, he might have found it also."

Bingo, P.D. James. One passing sentence in a 425-page book, but she nailed it. Humility is out of fashion, but wisdom and faith demand it.

This wasn't the best P.D. James novel I've ever read, but I'm not sorry I read it. My February list of books to show that I've been reading a lot of less worthy books! Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile story and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.


At 4:13 PM , Blogger Mindy Withrow said...

You've hit on the reason I love P.D. James---that of course our concepts of God and justice and reality have everything to do with people who murder and people who work to identify them. Her stories are never just whodunits, but whodunits that get to the theological heart of the problem. Have you read Death in Holy Orders? That's a really good one as well, about a murder at a seminary.

Thanks for your review!

P.S. I recently reviewed James' memoir Time to Be in Earnest at www.mindywithrow.com, if you're interested.

At 9:25 PM , Blogger magistramater said...

(I just saw a comment from you about Wives and Daughters)

This is a great review. I appreciate P.D. James and will slowly read through her books for the thoughtfulness, culture, biblical references and for that intriguing man named Adam.

Original Sin is on my bookshelf, waiting for my attention. You make me want to put it on my nightstand.

I'm off to read Mindy's review...

At 5:40 AM , Blogger Carrie K said...

I listened to Unnatural Causes on audiobook a few months ago; that was my first introduction to the Adam Dalgliesh character. Before that, the only P.D. James I had read was Children of Men (loved it, hated the movie). I enjoyed Unnatural Causes - I'm heading to the library web site to see if they have this one. Thanks for the great review - and the insightful comments on Vanity Fair at my blog. You haven't quite changed my mind about Becky Sharpe ;), but you have made me see how the same book can mean different things to different readers. And I agree with your final comment - if Rawdon's family had accepted their marriage, everything could've - and probably would've - been different.



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