Dalgliesh Takes On A Publishing House

P.D. James's hero investigates two deaths with aplomb, but readers may want to see more of him in latest novel

THE only sin P.D. James commits in her otherwise flawless novel ``Original Sin'' is one of omission: There simply isn't enough of her moody protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh.

But the book is so well filled with an intriguing cast of characters in a lush, evocative setting that the sin is a venial one at best.

When the body of senior editor Sonia Clements is found in the archive room at Peverell Press, the directors of the old and distinguished London firm are upset, but at least they can cling to the knowledge that hers was definitely a suicide. They are also hoping that this death will put an end to some earlier troubling events - manuscripts being changed, illustrations being lost.

In fact, the entire atmosphere at Peverell Press has been filled with tension since the death of old Mr. Henry Peverell, who had run the press in a benevolent but not financially sound manner. And now the press is being brought kicking and screaming into the present by its new director, Gerard Etienne. His dismissals and other cost-cutting methods are necessary, but done with a heartless flair.

One of his most shocking suggestions is that the press sell its home, Innocent House, a vast and stately mock-Venetian palace located on the banks of the Thames, and move to more practical offices. The sole remaining Peverell, a young woman named Frances, who works at the press and also lives in an adjoining building, cannot bear the thought.

But when Gerard Etienne is also found dead in the archive room, two facts emerge. The death is definitely murder, and Frances is hardly the lone suspect.

Etienne is found with the head of a stuffed snake (an office mascot) jammed into his mouth, and once Commander Dalgliesh asks the deceptively simple question - what is the snake doing there? - events, lives, and secrets begin to unravel.

P.D. James brings her usual trademarks to this new Dalgliesh case. She loves to set characters inside an institution - be it a publishing house or a nursing home - and set them upon each other with the catalyst of murder.

James's writing is as stately and elegant as ever. Sometimes you'll come across an impossibly long sentence (the second sentence in the book, for example, runs eight lines) and marvel at how controlled and clear it is.

But again it is in the delineation of her characters that she excels. Dalgliesh may not appear very frequently, but his presence is felt throughout. Perhaps James is keeping him offstage to allow for the development of his assistants, Kate Miskin and Daniel Aaron.

Even more strongly drawn are the characters at Peverell Press: Blackie, who served old Mr. Peverell for 27 years, only to be scorned by young Mr. Etienne; Claudia Etienne, Gerard's sister, lonely enough to look to the wrong man for love; Esme Carling, an author whom Etienne coldly dumped after decades with the press; and the temporary typist Mandy, a tough-minded realist who doesn't know her short stint at the publishing house will include the discovery of several bodies.

It's natural that a writer as talented as James would want to try other formats - hence her successful foray into the future with her 1993 book ``The Children of Men,'' a nondetective novel about a world without children set in 2021.

But to allow her fans to go too long without another Adam Dalgliesh mystery would be, well, almost a sin. PONDERING A DEATH

On Saturday 16 October Jean-Philippe Etienne took his morning walk as usual.... [H]e looked across the calm straits of the estuary to the lights on Mersea Island and thought about this unknown Commander Dalgliesh. The message he had sent to the police by Claudia had been unambiguous; he had no information to offer about his son's death, no theories to propose, no possible explanations of the mystery to put forward, no suspect he could name. His own view was that Gerard had died by accident, however odd or suspicious some of the circumstances. Accidental death seemed likelier than any other explanation, certainly far likelier than murder. Murder. The heavy consonants of horror thudded in his mind, evoking nothing but repugnance and disbelief.

And now, standing as still as if petrified on the narrow strip of gritty beach ... he paid his son the reluctant tribute of memory.

- From `Original Sin'

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