Uneasy mix of style, suspense; Innocent Blood, by P. D. James. New York: Scribner's. $10.95
From the same wonderful folks have gave us Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers , we have had in recent years P. D. James, England's current "queen of crime." Mrs. James has written seven acclaimed detective novels since 1962, starring one of Scotland Yard's finest, Adam Dalgliesh. In her latest novel, "Innocent Blood," she abandons her male sleuth for an 18-year-old female who is engaged in tracking down her own identity. Thus, she rides off in search of new literary directions.
Mrs. James considers herself a serious writer who happens to write mysteries. But this is her first novel billed as "a major work of fiction," and the reader discoveries early that combining the serious and the suspenseful is a tricky business, and that herein the novelist is not entirely successful.
She does set her stage powerfully. Philippa Palfrey, the brilliant, Cambridge-bound adopted daughter of a cool, intellectual sociologist and his second wife, determines to discover, now that she is 18, her real father and mother. In the first two hair-rising chapters, she learns that they were respectively a child rapist and a murderer. The rapist father has died in prison, but the murderess mother is about to be released on parole.
Even though her adoptive parents raise objections to her seeking out the past ("None of us can bear too much reality," quotes Maurice, the sage sociologist), Philippa goes her own way, as befits a determined prodigy, and sets up housekeeping with mum. Into the picture creeps another character -- by far the most exciting -- Norman Scase. He is the obsessed father of the murdered child. As he stalks his child's killer, now living with the innocent Philippa, we encounter the best of Mrs. James's writing. Norman is a retired civil servant, a little chap, about whom Mrs. James writes sympathetically and persuasively, no doubt because of her own long professional association with the white-collar workers of the British bureaucracy.
But the rest of her characters, including Philippa, are cardboard. They are frequently called on to demonstrate their high intellectual worth by quoting John Bunyan, discussing George Eliot, and expounding on the intricacy of a flower petal. This does not forgive them their cold pomposity and ultimately flavories personalities. Maurice Palfrey, Philippa's mother, and Philippa's erstwhile lover, Gabriel Lomas, might have blood, heart, and feelings like the rest of us, but Mrs. James's prose reduces them to mere frames on a gallery wall.
Philippa herself, far from denoting the vivacity of a superior young person, sounds programmed. A typical example of her automated conversation as she describes the deceitful Gabriel reads, "Oh, Gabriel has a personality like a hexagon. People need touch only one side for an illusion of closeness." Or, as she attacks her mother verbally for her lies: "Maurice warned me that you were clever. At least I've learned one thing about myself, where I get my scheming intelligence." Neither rape, murder, incest, or death can cause Philippa to stutter, stammer, weep, or beat her breast.
As in Mrs. James's previous novels, "Innocent Blood" is well plotted and sustains a certain suspense. However, a good mystery novel depends on fast, almost-uninterrupted narrative -- the kind of page-turning anxiety that Ken Follett specializes in. Here, the narrative is interrupted by too-frequent lyrical descriptive passages, which seem designed only to demonstrate higher levels of artistic consciousness.
These intrusions, together with the static characters, compel the reader to question the success of Mrs. James's "serious" enterprise. It is only with the characterization of Norman Scase and his woman-hunt through the neighborhoods, parks, and undergrounds of London that we truly applaud the author's art. She can describe the ambiance of the subway with the same clear reportorial eye with which she sees the architecture of an Inigo Jones house But for a "serious" novel, there is too much atmospheric detail here, at the expense of concern for the human equation. Bring back Adam Dalgliesh!