P.D. James and the Mystery of Iniquity
Ralph C. Wood

READERS OF MYSTERY NOVELS know that P.D. James is the reigning British Queen of Crime, a worthy successor to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. She is indeed the master of all the English crime novel conventions: a cozy bourgeois atmosphere (preferably a professional enclave), this complacent world horribly disrupted by a murder, the naming of internal as well as external suspects, a further set of complicating murders, the sorting out of various alibis, the inevitable false leads, and the ultimate solution by her detective hero, Adam Dalgliesh. The criminal is finally caught and punished, and moral order is restored, even though much good has been destroyed in the process. What many readers do not know, however, is that James is a writer whose work is imbued with deep Christian convictions. Her novels are concerned to detect not merely who "done" it but also why. She probes human motives with an unusually keen eye for the mystery of iniquity. James's criminals are never evil through and through. Among the strange
RALPH C. WOOD is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. He received his doctorate in theology and literature from the University of Chicago and is the author of The Comedy of Redemption (University of Notre Dame). 350

anomalies of sin that they reveal, perhaps the chief is this: they often kill in the name of good. James's novels do not offer pleasing literary escapes into unreality. They wrestle, on the contrary, with the very largest moral and social questions: abortion, euthanasia, environmental destruction, terrorism, multiculturalism, homosexuality, etc. A spry octogenarian who has been writing for more than forty years, James has fourteen novels to her credit. Among her best known works are A Taste for Death (1986), Innocent Blood (1980), Devices andDesires (1987), Original Sin (1994), The Children of Men (1992), A Certain Justice (1997), and Death in Holy Orders (2001). She has also written Time to Be in Earnest: Fragments of an Autobiography (1999). That James fleshes out her characters with complex motives and particular features, that she renders the atmosphere and setting of her novels in convincing detail, and that she writes with extraordinary eloquence—these qualities have won her much high acclaim and many literary prizes. In recognition of her achievements, she has been created Baroness James of Holland Park. Wood, together with his wife Suzanne, interviewed Lady James on August 7,2000, during lunch in the Royal Park Hotel overlooking the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, London.

Augustine's Confessions. The young Augustine and some of his buddies strip this tree. I do think it does in fact deter. wasn't it. were any of us to get justice. though not too many. In a way. From reading your novels—where no one is completely a culprit—I would assume that you would be opposed to it. to vindicate someone who has been wronged or else to seek his own revenge for hurts he has suffered. I think maybe you do because you have such an odd system. I suppose. complicates matters even further. There are certain people in life. And so I'm interested in what you think of the death penalty. that has retained this ultimate sanction. I've always opposed it. that we're all such guilty sinners that. It seems to me certain people don't perhaps get the defense that they should get. WOOD: Those who take delight in the sheer thrill of murder. JAMES: But in that book it is the murderer who discovers that the little boy is ill. unlike most people who oppose it. in that way. undoubtedly we have. did you not. now with DNA testing. yes. some 30 or 40 people per year. JAMES: Oh yes. We execute. 351 . evil usually is. does it not. who are evil in a rather special sense. The murderer there is not seeking. I don't think my attitude to it is entirely logical because. and it seems to be an evil indulged almost for its own sake. But I still have an abhorrence to it. saves the child's life. that's illogical because I'm saying that I'm willing for other people to be at a greater risk of being murdered in order that I can have a clear conscience about not having a death penalty. We do pray for mercy. It's not primarily a perversion of something good which. none of us Should see salvation.WOOD: Your novels all deal with the crime of crimes: the taking of human life. isn't it? The murderer. I don't think that here in England we make many mistakes. it would be a grim world indeed? Your last novel. Even so. there may be even greater proof of guilt or innocence. not to enjoy its luscious fruit. that even the murderously guilty do not always get justice and that we have to find ways to live with this unhappy fact. JAMES: I won't say we haven't executed people who are innocent. WOOD: Well. You probably know that the United States is the only major nation. I suppose I think so because it would certainly deter me. as in A Taste for Death. I do oppose it. as in so many of your novels. WOOD: Your fiction implies. there could still be mistakes. without having to look after very dangerous murderers in prison. of course. And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. but literally for the thrill of it. in The Merchant of Venice: In the course of justice. I can take these strongly liberal views about such things. He simply delights in the terror flashing through the eyes of the person he is about to murder. by the classical Augustinian definition. It was what Portia said. There you showed. JAMES: I did. Portia's speech also relates to one of your other questions. Vandalism is another example. WOOD: Pornography is an increasing problem in our country. A Modern Age Certain Justice. You may remember the famous pear-stealing episode in St. And I think it used to deter professional criminals with guns. and that Texas is notorious for exercising it. perhaps other than Japan.

WOOD: On a happier subject: Two of my students have done master's theses on the work of Dorothy L. JAMES: On Monday. I am unveiling a plaque to her on the flat where she lived in London. so I had to do all of it. One of them discovered that. and it caused a huge furor. We have a system here by which blue plaques are put on houses where famous people lived. When I'm asked why I didn't make Dalgliesh a Christian. What is to be made of people who go out and desecrate a grave? JAMES: Well. some kind of terrible and horrible thrill." she says. is that right? JAMES: Oh yes. "We're trying to solve a murder. JAMES: It was a very interesting production. There were a few professional actors but most of the cast were amateurs. to taking a positive and active pleasure in evil. There's everything from just not obeying the law. "and here's Fall2002 . Dalgliesh doesn't really waste any time attempting to get him to divulge it. I found a copy of an address you had given to the Sayers Society 21 years ago. We didn't do the whole cycle. Sayers. I think there are differences when we talk about wrongdoing. as a skeptic rather than a churchman. I can remember the huge sensation caused at the time The Man Bom to Be King was first broadcast. It seems to me it is. Sayers Society. But because Kate Miskin [his fellow detective] has had no religious education. in a production last summer. It held up remarkably well. WOOD: I have discovered that the Dorothy L." Having had a father who was an Anglican priest. you played the role of Evangelist in three of her plays. I'm afraid this last may be getting more common. whether it's a man or woman. WOOD: The vandalism of cemeteries is something that frightens me. the part was supposed to be shared with Lord [Michael] Ramsey [the late Archbishop of Canterbury] but he was too ill. WOOD: Where was it done? In a church? JAMES: It was performed in a city church and promoted by the Dorothy L. which is one kind of wrongdoing. He is a reverent agnostic. perhaps to guard against making him your mouthpiece. Is that a false surmise? JAMES: Yes. he has been steeped in Anglican theology. Great accusations of blas352 phemy. It's interesting for me to have a detective like that when you get a situation such as occurs in A Certain Justice. It was the first time someone on the radio had impersonated Christ. I'm unveiling it on Monday. One's central character always contains a little of oneself. He understands that the priest can't and won't. at the Sayers Study Centre in Witham. In fact. It's almost as if anything that's beautiful has to be destroyed.JAMES: We see this too. to not doing what we know we should do. just a selection. WOOD: If we might talk about your novels for a while: I have surmised that you deliberately portray your chief detective. Sayers Society is very grateful to you for the support you've given them over the years. for the sheer pleasure of destruction. There the priest has information which was given him in confession and which he will not divulge. WOOD: Tell us about that. Huge! We had terrible trouble. Adam Dalgliesh. she thinks the priest's totally and absolutely unreasonable. I can only retort: "Because he isn't one.

Yes. I ensured that I was never in a position where I had to write the next book for money. which I hate. What people really want from me is a classical detective story. A lot of people felt it was too reserved. but I couldn't. and he's a poet. she was Scottish because it's a Scottish name. I wonder whether he might be a distant model for Dalgliesh. WOOD: And he's named after one of your English teachers. rather than giving us another one of those dreary tellall confessions so popular in our time. Yet he's not in the least bit Scottish. I didn't set out to write a Christian book. WOOD: What about the two novels in which Dalgliesh doesn't appear. There Palfrey spouts his atheistic denials of Christian belief (if I may quote from my own notes): "the monstrous notion that there is a God who created us in His image. when it is obvious that we have made Him in our own likeness. I know we're all different. And he's reserved. when 353 . I was quite glad to get back to murder mysteries! WOOD: You mentioned in your autobiography that The Children of Men has not been one of your better sellers. What would happen to society with the end of the human race? At the end of it. Always. JAMES: No. By carrying on with my ordinary jobs. and he is compassionate without any sentimentality. it seems to me. the pathetic injustice of blaming people for original sin. about using the events of an entire Modern Age year's social calendar to reflect upon your past life. Some people do their best work like that. JAMES: It wasn't a complete diary or a complete memoir. I don't think Dalgliesh had a model.a man who has evidence and won't give it. on one particular occasion. I have great admiration for and great faith in high intelligence. I didn't at that time quite appreciate what a Scottish name it is. I needed to say these things." Dalgliesh understands why he won't. I set out to deal with the idea I had. always. WOOD: You mentioned in your autobiography that there was a time when your father stopped going to church. But I'm very lucky: I've always written. When I began The Children of Men. what I wanted to write. WOOD: I like the oblique approach that you take in your "fragment of an autobiography. Not at all." as you call it. I'm not sure how far I set out with that i ntention. Of course. he interviews an Anglican bishop. I seem never to write a book which doesn't have a practicing Christian in it. these two are virtual thesis novels because they have a moral and theological argument that drives them? Is that too strong? JAMES: No. WOOD: In Innocent Blood. But then I'm not a confessional writer. He has the qualities that I think are important. except insofar as any novelist is a confessional writer. But I needed to do it. You can't prevent yourself from being so. It was quite a traumatic book to write. There's something refreshing. unlike your detective novels. JAMES: My English teacher. I find it more interesting to have Dalgliesh as he is. I think he represents what I admire in human beings. Dalgliesh is also sensitive. JAMES: Nor did the autobiography. I realized I had written a Christian fable. I'm disappointed to know that it has not sold as well as some of the others. I think it isn't. the sociologist Maurice Palfrey has a TV show called "Dissent" where. Innocent Blood and The Children of Men? Am 1 wrong to think that.

we take no notice of it and rather despise them. I wouldn't say my personal search 354 for God because I'm so convinced of His existence and of His love that I don't doubt them." That sounded rather close to what I read in your autobiography. but essentially it was the religion of liberal humanism laced with a ritual to suit each individual taste. including evil and suffering. For me. For example. no doubt. I would still be a Roman Catholic. WOOD: In America we have our own denier of central dogmas. 1 wonder whether there might be a good deal of sympathy in this description of the bishop's own Anglicanism as "a satisfying compromise between reason and myth.they have no choice in the matter. But the church remains the framework for my search. were brought up in Anglicanism. But I find that kind of Anglicanism very difficult. and when it does Fall2002 . Had I been born a Roman Catholic. j ustif ied by the beauty of its liturgy. the church. by tradition. the laughable contradiction between the Virgin Birth and the idea that sex is so sacred it. And they would get is more respect if they did. a celebration of Englishness. a matter of temperament. I suppose. except to exhort us to live better lives. Yet my friends are not going to bail out." After the bishop has remained virtually silent throughout this grilling. organized religion. I think that so many of my friends. this is how I must run my race. But now. WOOD: When I first read the following passage. heaven is a dimension. a notorious retired Episcopal bishop named John Shelby Spong. JAMES: I think that's very true for a certain kind of Anglican. Much else has been puzzling to me. really. and of course the terrible doctrine of Atonement with its barbaric idea that the Son must propitiate His Father's desire for vengeance. though now. and that his fellow Christians would have been scandalized if he had? JAMES: It's an indictment. "Bishop Spong cannot repeat the Apostle's Creed without perjuring himself. So. The church is very weak. which is very useful. I thought: What do the bishops say? They don't say very much. the order and dignity of it. because it's expected of them. That's not their job. Of course the growing part of the church is charismatic and evangelical. For I would feel that. It isn't up or down anywhere. how much of the Creed do we accept literally? Let's take " He came down from heaven." We don't any longer believe that it's up there. the narrator comments: "Poor bishop! He could only win by saying things that he'd be too embarrassed to utter and which neither the BBC nor the viewers— especially the Christians—would in the least wish to hear. even if our bishops sometimes deny the central dogmas. I thought 1 had detected a similar kind of indictment." JAMES: I think these things are really interesting. They love the beauty of the liturgy. after reading your autobiography. must be confined to marriage. Another retired bishop has recently said of him. it's being increasingly lost. but I would see no reason for throwing it over. But it amazes me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops don't speak up much more firmly about matters of faith." Isn't this a devastating indictment of the entire church— that one of its bishops would not answer a vitriolic attack with a clear confession of his own faith. But I feel very strongly that when we are exhorted by politicians to behave in a certain way. It's the kind I am most familiar with. like me. At least I can't conceive it is. alas. I wouldn't necessarily believe in the dogma. do we? To me. And they don't do that often enough. is the body within which I can continue my personal search for reality.

And they have so much now that enables them to forget about death or sorrow or sin or the great problems. There can't possibly be a meeting of minds on this matter. Our ancestors sat in these dark little churches. Should you take that action or the other? Is the government right in cutting down this or that? What the bishops should really be saying is that we should be looking at ourselves and our own sinfulness." JAMES: I had a friend who was there. WOOD: Or they collapse into the kind of sentimentalism that followed Princess 355 . When you've seen your fellow Christians martyred for that belief. The social workers come to counsel. If they are told to go to the Bible. And it has all the marks. It's getting to be a minority religion here. and you had the comforting feeling that they would go to hell. And then there's shopping and do-it-yourself. WOOD: What about the future of the church in this country? JAMES: Well. They don't really see that God would send his Son to the world. but I don't think they believe the theology of Christianity any more. JAMES: Exactly. Bishop Spong was terribly offended by the African bishops who called the church to its senses by making very clear. Now you see what people fill their lives with. football is the national-international religion now.. WOOD: At the last major Anglican gathering in 1999. but people recognize that something else is needed. Bishop Spong wound up virtually calling them primates in the biological rather than the ecclesial sense! Wags in the States thus began to speak of Spong as "culturally challenged. soccer] team. They don't really accept the theology of the Redemption. nasty. can there? Can't possibly be. Yet there may be a renascence. An African flew at Spong. it's got its rituals. And they believed they would. He was culturally challenged almost irreversibly! The serious thing to me is that in Africa they see homosexuality as a great sin. and holidays and stores and pop music. American. to suffer this terrible death and be tortured to death in order to redeem us. and short" and full of pain. it's always somehow quasipolitical. traditional declarations about homosexuality. I can get depressed about Modern Age it. it's got its high priests. I honestly think they don't. WOOD: 1 see mere kids buying £40 [$60] T-shirts celebrating Manchester's winning football [i. So they're able to stamp out these deep questions. But when aterrible disaster happens. it's very often to the church that they look. These bishops have members of their congregation who have been martyred rather than become homosexual lovers of local chiefs. all of us.e. or English bishops saying we should ordain these people. If so. and their lives were "brutal. If we were not sinful and selfish. And if you were good you went to heaven. It's got its heroes. it's got its martyrs. I think it will have to face what to me is the fundamental difficulty. JAMES: I can well believe that. WOOD: I have heard that there are now more Anglicans in Africa than in England. then you get a bit disconcerted when at the annual conference you hear Canadian. it's got its theology. they see very conflicting reports in the Gospels. He said they practically came to blows. You had to do something about wrongdoers. the social wrongs would be righted. Honestly. I don't think they believe in the Virgin Birth. and one of the characters in my new book says it: People have a belief in God and a great need for God and a need for prayer and a need for God's power.speak out.

WOOD: When we lived here in 1987-88." Loving God means that we will put all of our other loves in order. JAMES: We've bandied these words around and talked a great deal about the necessity of love but. a lady whom I admired. I think that is a fair criticism. JAMES: He very likely may be. and the very acrimonious divorce that followed. WOOD: The tons of flowers were placed right here in Kensington Gardens [which our restaurant overlooked]. and that this will produce the kind of freedom which puts real constraints on some of our loves. WOOD: What do you make of my suggestion that liberalism of the classic kind has a certain canker at its core—namely. it was evident that their marriage had already begun to be an affair of separate lives. he intended to be faithful and that he did his best. She struck me as a nice but rather empty girl. they have such a long-lived family. WOOD: We've read that Prince Charles has declared that he and Camilla Parker Bowles will not marry. was "Love God and do what you will. no matter how outrageous. WOOD: We joke that Prince Charles 556 will probably be a nursing home resident when he finally becomes king. a field of plastic. Our contemporary world. To that extent he was at fault. by contrast. when he did marry her. We'd see pictures of her attending rock concerts and sitting among the screaming crowds as if she belonged there. I show how dangerous obsessive love can be. how do you say. it was all papers." But that's a different kind of doing "exactly what you like. Whereas religion says you can do exactly what you like. an unwillingness to define the good. WOOD: Your novels demonstrate that fact ever so powerfully. in many of my books. Do they have a specific source? Or do they spring from a lifelong existence in the church? Fall2002 . isn't it? WOOD: St. They were never even undone. I think that Prince Charles should never have married her. Is that a fair criticism? JAMES: Yes. as long as you don't harm yourself as well as others or disobey God. Is this because the nation would not have her as a prospective queen? JAMES: I think it may well be. JAMES: Yes. But I am quite sure that. But where do such theological insights come from? They seem to well up naturally in your novels. JAMES: Absolutely. But of course liberalism doesn't pretend to be religious because it says you can do exactly what you like as long as you don't hurt others. The interesting thing is that it wasn't a great field of flowers but a field of plastic and tissue paper. although I was sorry for her. as you know. Augustine's famous motto. an eagerness to give all men the freedom to achieve this undefined freedom in their own way.shewasaverydisturbed young woman. She was not. I think partly because she was so harmed in childhood: her mother walking out on her. A disastrous match. regards all constraint as a loss of freedom. She was totally without any education. It's a different kind of paradigm.Diana's death and that you decried in your autobiography. but maybe that's too harsh. weren't they? JAMES: There were flowers all around. That harmed them all so much.

for example. Would you have read Bunyan as a young child? JAMES: Yes. I notice that your novModern Age els are larded with quotations from Shakespeare. It comes like so many quotations. as a child. and he's our only great Baptist writer.afterspending a lifetime reading Greek and Roman myths about rising and dying gods. It certainly has its mythic elements. isn't it? And therefore you have fewer of these problems. And of course every school day began with an act of worship. JAMES: And the great mystery of the empty tomb which is at the heart of Christianity. It's come from a lifelong experience of praying for help and receiving that help. and then I probably look it up and make sure I have it right. here is somebody who should be worshipped and followed.Lewissaidthat. you get the story of the Passion: "Father. I do find huge difficulty with much of the dogma. of course. WOOD: But it has remained locked in your head so precisely all these years? JAMES: No. I felt there were certain things like the destruction of the swine and the cursing of the fig tree that were almost petulant: surely that was not God's behavior! And then. forgive them. to feel He was there. nor that his candor about his sin should have drastic consequences. but "crucified under Pontius Pilate" is not a mythic claim. JAMES: Yours is a much less compromising religion." JAMES: I know. But as you probably gathered. he found it impossible to regard the New Testament as a mythic book.S. when it comes to authority. from a childhood in which every Sunday 1 went to church. Recently I thought. so that was bred in me. both in the church and in the world. whether he was divine in the sense which the creed suggests he is.JAMES: I think they must come partly from real infant childhood. WOOD: We have our own problems. How far are any of us entitled to call ourselves Christians if we don't affirm the physical resurrection? WOOD: Speaking of such fundamental religious matters. Even we Baptists could use a few bishops who are willing at 357 . the usually unread part of Bunyan. WOOD: It's from Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress. My wife and I are Baptists. a natural longing to believe in Him. Not a feeling that I was reading about somebody who was the incarnate Son of God. "I will go back to the Gospels and read them as if I were coming to them fresh and see what I think about this man they portray. of course. offered no clear declaration that the president's public repentance should have first occurred in the church. I come from a strong Anglican family." And it was interesting because I was led to an immense admiration for him. President Clinton's Baptist pastor in Arkansas. and it's a splendid warning against all attempts to bypass the hard and steep road to truth: "Some also have wished that the next way to their father's house were here [in a green meadow filled with lilies]. and there is an end. It's probably locked there. and that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over. But I also think that a natural interest in God was planted in me. But I was happily surprised by the wonderful quotation you lift from Bunyan in Innocent Blood. WOOD: C." Here you feel. for they know not what they do. as we should perhaps expect. WOOD: It's marvelous. but the way is the way.

1 absolutely agree. it's not. That's a risky claim. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth put our case well when he said that the sermon should be the central Protestant sacrament. the Word of God comes to life in a vital and ongoing way. they are actively engaged and involved from the moment of the procession to the final recession. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to observe. But she makes the valid point that Anglican worship engages all five of her senses— and thus her entire bodily existence—in rightly glorifying God. I think very often that the basis of my religious belief is gratitude. There we encounter the living Christ as He engages us and our world. Of course. whereas in Episcopal liturgy. and sometimes they are even smelling the incense! The Anglican service doesn't stand or fall upon the quality of the sermon. very lucky. She and her husband are either genuflecting. But we can certainly be agreed that the fundamental meaning of the word eucharist is "grace gift. I would add that this unparalleled Gift enables us to understand the nature of all other good gifts. and I suppose this is also true in the Baptist church too. or listening to the homily. MRS. and I thank God. They have the Angelus. that Holy Communion is the heart of the worship? Or is it? WOOD: Honestly. JAMES: The church I often go to. especially in matters moral and doctrinal! JAMES: As long as they do! If you had ours. WOOD: But our Baptist church does have a liturgy. our daughter is a very good musician. even at best. They argue that the average evangelical Christian service of worship makes them feel like spectators rather than participants. But you do not have that same degree of participation? WOOD: Our own congregation has monthly communion." and that in the Redemption wrought by our Lord on His Cross we have received the supreme favor. JAMES: Of course the Eucharist is the central service. or singing the liturgical responses.isavery fine church in which the Creed and the Gloria are often sung in Latin. It's the point at which. or making the sign of the cross. because preachers who discourse on current events or spout their personal opinions destroy the true act of worship. we believe. in Anglican liturgy. Yet you often have Baptist services where. The priest doesn't like it when people ring up and ask what the music is. and they have a professional choir. except for the hymns. a very modest one with a processional and a litany. JAMES: I think I have. they wouldn't. of course. Fall 2002 . I have received a huge blessing. All Saints MargaretStreet.times to say No. because that is not what you are supposed to be going to church for. which is much more frequently than in many Baptist churches. Episcopalians as we say. WOOD: You may be interested to hear that our daughter and son-in-law have both become Anglicans. I get the old aches and pains—who doesn't?—though I'm very. I think the Eucharist has to be the heart of the action. that you have received one of God's good gifts in having just completed your 80th year of life while retaining sprightly health. WOOD: You may have heard the nasty jibe that many Protestant worship ser358 vices consist of a concert followed by a lecture. as so often happens in many Protestant services. It's secondary. Of course. in conclusion. and she often sings in the choir. there would be no other active participation within the congregation. for reasons you will find interesting.

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