Original Sin by P. D. James: B+

From the inside flappydoodle:
Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team are confronted with a puzzle of baffling complexity. A murder has taken place in the offices of the Peverell Press, a venerable London publishing house located in a dramatic mock-Venetian palace on the Thames. The victim is Gerard Etienne, the brilliant but ruthless new managing director, who had vowed to restore the firm’s fortunes. Etienne was clearly a man with enemies—a discarded mistress, a rejected and humiliated author, and rebellious colleagues, one of whom apparently killed herself a short time before. Yet Etienne’s death, which occurred under bizarre circumstances, is for Dalgliesh only the beginning of the mystery, as he desperately pursues the search for a killer prepared to strike again and again.

I wouldn’t rank this as one of P. D. James’ best. The writing and characterization are excellent as always, but I had terrible trouble getting into the story at first, on account of her “let’s spend some time on the victim and each suspect before the crime occurs” approach. She’s used this in at least one previous novel that I can recall and I don’t dislike it, necessarily, but in this case it made for slow going. A revelation at the post-mortem provided a much needed injection of excitement, thankfully, and the second half went by much more swiftly.

I was a little disappointed in the conclusion of the case, both so far as motive and some subsequent events were concerned. I am also very confused about the timeline of these novels. Each seems to be more or less set in the year that it was published, but Dalgliesh appears to be rather consistently in his late forties/early fifties. One character states it’s been nine months since an event that occurred two books ago, which means the events of the immediately preceding book, Devices and Desires, took place only weeks before this one. Perhaps I should give up trying to puzzle this out exactly, but it’s irksome when everything else is so tidily done.

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  1. This happens a lot, I’ve noticed, especially in series detective novels. The problem is that technology has changed so very quickly that books set in the ‘present’ really must keep up, or readers would be scoffing at them for their stupidity.

    Sue Grafton’s books (A is for Alibi was written in 1986 or thereabouts) have the exact same problem, where her detective mentions that the last case was a month or two ago, yet in RL a year or so has passed since the last book was published. If you add up all the mentions, probably R and S should be taking place in about 1990.

    I think the Lynley books have similar issues, but I tried not to do too much adding with them — it drives me mad. Nancy Drew, of course, is just a lost cause.

    Poirot and Marple -definitely- have the same problem. Tommy and Tuppence are her only characters who age in a normal fashion.

  2. Sigh. I think I read somewhere that Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn is the same way. Perhaps it’s just an accepted fluke of the genre.

  3. I imagine he is, since his books were published over about 40 years, and he’s about 40 in the first ones.

    I think it must be a fluke of the genre. The only way around it is really to pick a specific time in the past to set your story, then you needn’t keep up with current events and technology.

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