P.D. James novels are like casseroles: it starts with nearly nothing, events that may seem bland to some people, and then simmers for hours before revealing all its flavors: they require the reader to be patient and unhurried. I read Original Sin carefully, because I wanted to understand how she makes sure to keep her readers along the very slow crescendo.
She doesn’t use the ubiquitous recipe of a brutal opening to immediately attach the reader to the plot. On the contrary, in this novel, she starts by focusing on a secondary character, an outsider to the plot: a young woman named Mandy, who works for a temp agency and is sent to work for the Peverell Press. This character is very useful for the plot advancement and the background explanations. As the novel starts a long time before the main murder, the author can’t use a policeman as the ignorant outsider to whom everything will be explained. Mandy is also useful as she advances the plot, while being objective: even as she discovers dead bodies in the firm, she can’t be a suspect and she can be candid about her emotions.To keep the atmosphere of foreboding for quite a while without anything really happens, PD. James uses small sentences to change the mood to the darker. See the opening sentence for example:
For a temporary short-hand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.
The voice is set, both serious and slightly deadpan, right from the beginning. All the more as you soon discover that the corpse in question is not the main murder at all.
A few chapters after, inspector Dalgliesh is introduced by this sentence:
Ten days after Sonia Clements’ suicide and exactly three weeks before the first of the Innocent House murders, Adam Dalgliesh lunched with Conrad Ackroyd at the Cadaver Club.
I can’t help but think that this Cadaver Club, a British private club for those professionally interested in murders, is a private joke. (I’ll do another post, I think, about P.D. James’ murder story within the murder story).
Despite the nice characters and atmosphere, I found some weakness in this novel, especially in the murderer’s ultimate motive (which I won’t explain here). But it didn’t spoil my pleasure.