Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P.D. James

by Patricia A Ward

Dr. Ward is professor of French and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 16, 1984, p. 519. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action. Theological and moral concerns have become apparent in Patricia James’s more recent fiction. The realities of evil and death are inescapable for her characters. How we live our lives is a sign of how we handle death, that unavoidable remind of our human condition.

The writer P. D. James is now receiving recognition for her contribution to the transformation of the traditional English detective story. James herself prefers to call the genre the “crime novel,” for she is concerned with much more than the writing of escapist thrillers. In an interview several years ago she discussed the conventions of the detective story in which “the good triumph and the bad are punished. . . .This is one reason why, for some people, the detective story -- however good it is -- will always be classified as a subliterary form: because of the contrivances, and because, in the past, psychological truth was too often sacrificed to the demands of plot” (Times Literary Supplement. June 5, 1981). For James, the genres of the novel and the detective story have merged: “The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action.”

Readers of the old-fashioned detective story usually approached it as an intellectual puzzle -- a “whodunit.” P. D. James admits that one of the reasons she began to write mysteries was the importance of the plot, saying that she chose a detective theme for her first book because she enjoyed reading detective stories for relaxation. “I think I was very much influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers in my girlhood -- and I was fascinated by the idea of constructing a plot,” she told the Times interviewer. A plot which is a suspenseful puzzle requires the kind of inexorable internal logic that Aristotle saw in Oedipus the King, in which the intellectual puzzle is acted out by the hero. The search for the identity of his parents drives Oedipus relentlessly toward his doom.

For Aristotle, the plot is also the story of human action from which moral and ethical issues cannot be separated. Oedipus thinks he can manage his own destiny through the power of his intelligence and his impulsive action, when in fact these very qualities lead to his downfall. Part of the power of a great story derives from the unexpected and sudden reversal and recognition near the end. In the peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition) the protagonist experiences a downfall and discovery of truth which inspire terror and pity in us. We identify with the hero or heroine whose inner being and existential predicament are like our own.

The reversal must result in poetic justice; an evil protagonist cannot be rewarded by the achievement of power and prestige. Nevertheless, in the greatest stories moral ambiguity is ever-present; good on a large scale triumphs, but the central figure is not totally wicked. The protagonist suffers because of a hamartia, a flaw in character or a mistake in judgment. The tragic hero or heroine embodies our own conflicting motivations and feelings. The ironies and complexities of life place the individual in a situation where a single choice can be all-important.

The classic detective story cannot exist apart from the principles of the existence of good and evil and of poetic justice. The crime is usually a murder; with the discovery of the identity of the murderer, the criminal experiences a kind of Aristotelian reversal. The reader closes the book knowing that justice will be carried out. Some literary critics have trouble with the conventionality of the principle of good and evil in the detective story; its focal point has been the cleverness of the investigator of the crime, not the psychology of the characters caught up in the drama of the crime.

In an article in Crime Writers, edited by H. R. F. Keating (1978), P. D. James defended Dorothy Sayers against that charge, pointing out that Sayers had begun to include the details of ordinary life in the detective story, placing events in a real world. Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, too, “are novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles. Both seek, not always successfully, to reconcile the conventions of the classical detective story with the novel of social realism.’’

On more fundamental grounds. James defends the crime novel in the hands of these writers because they never trivialize crime:

A genre which rests on the fundamental belief that willful killing is wrong and that every human being, no matter how unpleasant, inconvenient or worthless his life may be, has a right to live it to the last natural moment, needs no particular apology in an age in which gratuitous violence and arbitrary death have become common.

These comments reflect many of the qualities of James’s own novels. In her fictional world there is a vivid sense of place and of personality. The crimes she constructs occur in a closed community with its limited number of suspects and a set of distorted relationships where the family no longer exists as a cohesive unit. Crime is often the result of the ignorance and despair of ordinary people.

James began her writing career with the publication of Cover Her Face in 1962. Then in her early 40s, she was a hospital administrative assistant in London. After marrying C. B. White, a physician, in 1941, James had become the sole support of her family (she has two daughters) when her husband returned from the war mentally ill (he died in 1964). She continued her career as a civil servant, serving in the criminal department of the Home Office from 1968 to 1979, when she decided to give writing her full attention. Several of her nine novels have received awards from the British Crime Writers Association and the Mystery Writers of America.

Adam Dalgleish, a Scotland Yard inspector, is the principle figure of continuity in James’s first four novels. Almost without exception, the murder victims in these books are thoroughly unpleasant or rigid and unsympathetic. Like Dante, James seems to choose a punishment suitable to the sin of each of her victims; they themselves are a clue as to why they are murdered. Indirectly, they bring about their own doom. Dalgleish builds up a strange relationship with the dead, for the victim is “central to the mystery of his own death.”

Sally Jupp, the victim in Cover Her Face, is a manipulator and exploiter. The setting for the murder is Martingale, the country house of the Maxie family. Beginning with this first novel. James creates atmosphere by an attentive and accurate description of architecture and locale. The physical isolation of her chosen environments allows us to see a microcosm of society. In this book we observe the stresses at work in a small family for which decorum is one of the unspoken values; anyone is capable of violence when the threat to one’s values is great enough.

The setting of A Mind to Murder (1963) is the Steen Clinic, an upper-middle-class psychiatric center located in a Georgian town house in London. Enid Bolam, the victim, is a rigid, inflexible administrator who is generally disliked. The events in the third novel, Unnatural Causes (1967), take place at Monksmere Head, a point of land on the Suffolk coast where several writers live. Shortly after Dalgleish’s arrival on a personal visit, a body with its hands severed is found in a dinghy near the desolate shore. The victim had been a self-centered writer of mysteries, and the discovery of his corpse ironically parallels the opening incident of a story suggested to him by one of his neighbors.

Shroud for a Nightingale (1971) is situated at Nightingale House, a nurses training school, where two students and an instructor are murdered. Heather Pearce, a student playing the role of a patient during a demonstration of tube feeding, dies a ghastly death when disinfectant is mixed with the warm milk used in the feeding. She was not, however, the intended victim, and we discover that the key to the tangled web of relationships lies again with a thoroughly unpleasant person who has used information to threaten people.

Adam Dalgleish, the investigator in this first group of novels, is relentless, clever and intuitive, but he is no stereotype. A cool professional, he is also painfully aware of the dilemmas of his work and the fallibility of human nature. The writer of two books of poetry, he suffers because his self-knowledge permits him truly to understand the motives of the characters of each murder drama. When he questions a striking and intelligent woman about her past and her relationship with a very ordinary, but safe, friend and confidante, he is told that he could never understand. “But he did understand,” writes James. “There had been a boy in his prep school like that, so ordinary, so safe, that he was a kind of talisman against death and disaster.”

Adam is strangely detached and uncommitted. He has suffered the tragedy of the deaths of his wife and infant son. Although the threads of a romance are introduced in the early novels, Dalgleish does not remarry. In A Mind to Murder, he visits a Catholic church to light a candle on the 14th anniversary of his wife’s death, but he is not a believer. “He thought of this most private action in his detached and secretive life, not as superstition or piety, but as a habit which he could not break even if he wished.”

Dalgleish is perhaps a modern Everyman; aware of the great existential issues of life, he takes no stand on them. Although he is the son of an Anglican clergyman, he is alone and self-sufficient in a world of ambiguity and violence where love often is a possessive passion which is easily transformed into hate. In Shroud, Adam passes through the outpatient department of the hospital and is reminded of his own mortality. It is not that he fears death. “But he did grievously fear old age, mortal illness and disablement. He dreaded the loss of independence, the indignities of senility. . . . He was not arrogant enough to suppose himself secure from the lot of other men. But in the meantime, he preferred not to be reminded.”

Adam refuses to discuss the motivation to murder in terms of sin or wickedness. He agrees with Dr. Etherege in A Mind to Murder when asked about the unknown murderer: “Wicked? I’m not competent to discuss this in theological terms.” There are no clear-cut theological answers which explain the moral ambiguities of human action. James has commented:

Dalgleish’s failing as a human being . . . is that he is very careful to avoid commitment; detecting is in a sense an ideal job for him, because although he is constantly interfering with other people, finding things out about them and coming into their lives in a very dramatic way, he must remain detached -- he’d be an unsatisfactory policeman otherwise.

With her fifth novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), James creates a central character who is quite different from the detached Adam Dalgleish. Cordelia Gray is a young private detective who inherited a small agency from her partner Bernie after he committed suicide. Like Adam, she is alone; her father was a vagabond Marxist who left Cordelia to foster care -- she was mistakenly sent by the authorities to a Roman Catholic convent school. In this first big case, Cordelia becomes involved with the people she encounters, making herself vulnerable. Mark Callendar, a student who had mysteriously dropped out of Cambridge to work as a gardener, has committed suicide; his father, Sir Ronald, asks Cordelia to investigate the circumstances. Cordelia is cool, intelligent and well trained, but she decides to live in the cottage which Mark had been using and gradually identifies with his integrity; he is James’s first truly innocent victim. Although Cordelia is warned by the owner of the cottage that “it’s unwise to become too personally involved with another human being,” her rare inner strength and courage permit her to persevere and survive danger. When she encounters Dalgleish near the end of the novel, Cordelia is able to bend the letter of the law to be merciful in a way that Adam cannot.

Theological and moral concerns have more apparent in James’s more recent fiction. In The Black Tower (1975) a convalescent Dalgleish has gone to the Dorset coast to visit Father Baddeley, an old friend of his father. When Adam arrives, he discovers that the priest has died suddenly and been buried hastily. His suspicions aroused, Dalgleish is drawn into the investigation of a series of murders and other evil actions at Toynton Grange, a home for the disabled run on religious principles by Wilfred Anstay. The black tower embodies the evil and death which pervade this small, grotesque world. Dennis Lerner, a staff member, says of the tower:

I like the black tower, particularly in summer when the headland is peaceful and golden and the sun glints on the black stone. It’s a symbol, really, isn’t it? It looks magical, unreal, a folly built to amuse a child. And underneath there’s horror, pain, madness and death.

Dennis had repeated this to Father Baddeley once, but the priest had disagreed: “‘Oh, no, my son. Underneath there’s the love of God.”’ Julius Court, a key figure in the novel, will have none of this theological talk. “I don’t need a phallic symbol erected by a Victorian eccentric to remind me of the skull under the skin. Like any reasonable man I prepare my own defences.” What are they? “Money and the solace it can buy. Leisure, friends, beauty, travel. And when they fail. . . and Dennis’s four horses of the apocalypse take over, three bullets in a Luger.”

The realities of evil and death are inescapable for James’s characters. When Cordelia Gray encounters her first murderer, she bursts out, ‘‘I can’t believe that a human being could be so evil.” Then she continues, “What is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another?” The gentle are destroyed by those, like Julius Court, who ruthlessly pursue beauty and luxury as the supreme momentary consolations which can stave off mortality. How we live our lives is a sign of how we handle death, that unavoidable reminder of our human condition. Death of an Expert Witness (1977) is the most complex work to that point and marks James’s mastery of the crime novel as a genre. The action occurs in a forensic laboratory in East Anglia and in the nearby town of Chevisham and its fens. The first of the two murders is not premeditated, and both crimes result from despairing passion. In this book, Dalgleish moves closer to involvement with the murder drama than at any other point in his career. As the investigation begins, Sergeant Massingham, his assistant, wonders what could move Dalgleish to spontaneous pity.” When the solution to the murders emerges, Adam suffers because he understands the desperation of the murderer who now faces the loss of family, which Adam himself has experienced through death. The criminal comments: “A murderer sets himself aside from the whole of humanity forever. It’s a kind of death. I’m like a dying man now. . . . I forfeited so many things when I killed . . . , even the right to feel pain.”

Of Innocent Blood (1980) James has said, “I wanted to write about the search for identity, revenge, redemption, . . . and therefore I decided this had better be a novel that wasn’t a straightforward detective story and wouldn’t feature Dalgleish.” This book constitutes a sophisticated transformation of the intellectual puzzle of the mystery; like Oedipus, Philippa Rose Palfrey, the adopted daughter of a nonbelieving social scientist who is also a television personality, decides to seek out the identity of her natural parents. Philippa’s journey out of her privileged, selfish and false existence as a young woman bound for Cambridge leads her to self-knowledge and the choice of love and forgiveness versus vengeance and expiation.

Philippa discovers that her mother, May Ducton, is about to be released from prison; the two tentatively begin to approach one another as they move into a shabby apartment in London. In the gripping story that follows, Philippa’s illusions about her parents are shattered. Maurice, her adoptive father, reveals the truth about her past and Philippa, like Oedipus, learns the limits of self-reliance. “It’s odd that over something so important you never once used your intelligence, you who have always relied on intelligence, have had such respect for your own mind.” With May’s death, Philippa’s real journey begins as she learns the meaning of sorrow and love, searching for the happiness symbolized by the rose of her name and the roses which constitute a motif of the novel.

At the end, having published a successful book, Philip-pa reappears when she is leaving Evensong at Cambridge; she meets Norman Scase, a figure from her past, who asks for her forgiveness. Philippa hurts Scase, but she exhibits the degree of her growth in her apology: “I’m sorry. I’m not a kind person. I try to be sometimes, but I’m not very good at it yet.” To Scase’s revelation of his own selfish motives, she inwardly acknowledges: “I used my mother to avenge myself on my adoptive father. We all use each other. Why should you expect to be less corrupt than the rest of us?” Philippa has learned the lesson of the moral ambiguities of her own actions; she is still on a journey toward the discovery of her own identity in reaching out to love another human being.

The rare moments of peace and happiness that occur in James’s fiction are sometimes connected with the quiet beauty of ritual, especially Evensong. There are reminders of joy and of traditional values in the references to authors such as Shakespeare, Austen or Blake. But beauty is only a reminder of grace, and lames sets the issue of self-knowledge in opposition to self-indulgence, the warship of beauty, and personal hypocrisy. Increasingly, her fiction reminds us that we need to accept our need of belief; belief itself is a gift. Even as a nonbeliever, Philippa finds in the Anglican mass a reminder of her unrecognized need to believe: “It was, after all, no hardship to listen to Cranmer’s prose, or as much of it as the revisers had left unmutilated. From these sonorous, antiphonal cadences Jane Austen, on her deathbed, receiving the sacrament from her brother’s hands, had taken comfort. That fact alone was enough to silence irreverence.

Philippa experiences one precious moment of delight before her world comes crashing down around her. One day, while her mother is preparing tea, Philippa is suddenly transfixed -- surprised by joy -- as she looks at a simple geranium on the window sill.

Some words of William Blake fell into her mind, familiar but new. “Everything that lives is holy. Life delights in life.” . . . Everything living was part of one great wholeness. To breathe was to take in delight. She wished she knew how to pray, that there was someone to whom she could say: “Thank you for this moment of happiness. Help me to make her happy.” And then she thought of other words, familiar but untraceable to their source: “In whom we live and move and have our being.”

The themes of the fragility of life and love and the reality of violent death and evil coalesce in The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) in which Cordelia Gray reappears as the protagonist. The title, a phrase previously used in The Black Tower, is drawn from T. S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality” and refers to the dramatist John Webster. Cordelia is asked to protect an actress named Clarissa Lisle, who has been receiving death threats in the form of quotations, usually from Shakespeare. Clarissa is to play the leading role in The Duchess of Malfi in an amateur production on Courcy Island, owned by Ambrose Gorringe, an old aquaintance. Cordelia accompanies the actress to the island, but cannot prevent her murder; two other deaths follow, and Cordelia herself barely survives.

The manipulative Clarissa was tortured by a vivid fear of death almost all her life, so the threats she has received are especially cruel. She says, “I don’t remember when it began, but I knew the facts of death before I knew the facts of life. There never was a time when I didn’t see the skull beneath the skin.” Later, when Cordelia confronts Clarissa’s attacker, she hears a secular philosophy like that of Julius Court:

A man should have the courage to live by his beliefs. If you accept, as I do absolutely, that this life is all that we have, that we die as animals, that everything about us is finally lost irrevocably, that we go into the night without hope, then that belief must influence how you live your life.

Clarissa and her attacker demean both life and death.

Cordelia has no ready theological answer to such problems; her response is intuitive. Yet, at key points in the novel, she recalls the values of her convent education. For her, evil is a reality from which unexpected moments of grace and providence protect her. In James’s world of distorted relationships, of crimes of despair and self-interest, a few figures stand out here and there. They have inner strength and knowledge; some believe, and all have the capacity and hunger to believe. Cordelia is one of these figures, and James seems to call us all to her inner honesty.