Thursday, June 16, 2022

In "times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty..."

From Ralph Wood on "P.D. James’s Detection of the Deepest Mysteries":
...Lady James, having been made a life peer and created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, is unyielding in her suspicion of the human capacity “to be good without God,” as our humanist friends claim. Her twenty novels give fictional life to St. Augustine’s estimation of evil as the ruin of God’s good creation by disordered desire: by a perverted love of the wrong persons, or the wrong things, or to the wrong extent. James quotes Adam Dalgliesh, her own master sleuth, on the unwitting Augustinian wisdom that an older detective sergeant once taught him: “All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love. They’ll tell you that the most dangerous is loathing but don’t you believe it, boy: the most dangerous is love.”

A complex admixture of good and evil lies at the moral and religious heart of James’s fiction. She depicts villains who are not entirely criminal and victims who are not wholly innocent. Most of her murderers kill for honorable reasons—usually to avenge some previous injustice. Like the rest of us, they commit evil in the name of good. They thus leave us with a troubling sense of our complicity in the hidden crimes of our own lives. Murder, James contends, is the unique crime. It “carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear.” We are at once repelled and attracted to depictions of this supreme offense because the line dividing good and evil does not separate the noble from the savage, the blameless from the guilty. It bisects every human heart. “Few people opening their door to two grave-faced detectives with a request that they should accompany them to the police station,” she remarked, “would do so without a qualm of unease, however certain they may be of their complete innocence.”

The appeal of detective fiction, James argues, is especially strong in an age of almost total disorder—in “times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty, when society can be faced with problems which no money, political theories or good intentions seem able to solve or alleviate.” Nihilistic terrorism, pandemic disease, and unceasing war all make their appearance in James’s novels. Yet they are not the prime focus. In the face of such insuperable evils, she argues, we are drawn to detective fiction because it ensures a sense of personal justice. Even when social evils cannot be conquered, individual crimes can be both detected and requited. .... (more)
Ralph Wood, "P.D. James’s Detection of the Deepest Mysteries," Public Discourse, June 14, 2022.

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