Another Part of the Wood
P.D. James is a mystery writer who with her new book has abandoned mystery. She began as a writer of orthodox detective stories in the English tradition. Her first book, Cover Her Face, opened with a tea party, and offered fairly conventional characters in a rural setting. But this book and its immediate successors seem not to have satisfied her, and in Shroud For a Nightingale (1971) she used her professional knowledge as a hospital administrator to give a realistic portrait of the Nightingale Training College for Nurses. The Black Tower (1975) is set in a home for incurables, and the crime is investigated by a detective who has just been reprieved from what was in effect a death sentence, a diagnosis of leukemia.
The detective, Commander Adam Dalgleish, appears in her first seven books, but the portrait of him is deepened and strengthened in The Black Tower and in the following Death of an Expert Witness (1978). Yet although these later books are pushing to extend the bounds of the detective story, there is a puzzle to be solved and a murderer to be exposed in all of them. With Innocent Blood this apparatus has gone. There is the threat of violence, but no mystery. There is no Dalgleish. No doubt this is the serious novel that Phyllis James had it in mind to write when she began.
The germ of the plot lies in the British Children’s Act of 1975, which gave adopted children over the age of eighteen access to their birth records. It was opposed in advance both by natural parents, keen to preserve their anonymity, and by those who had adopted the children, although in fact it has been little used. In the book it is invoked by Philippa Palfrey, adopted daughter of modish sociologist Maurice (author of Schooled to Fail: Class Poverty and Education in Great Britain, etc.) and his dejected wife Hilda. Philippa learns that her real father raped a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, and her mother then strangled the girl. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. Her father died in prison, her mother Mary Ducton is due for release in a month’s time. Philippa sees her mother in prison, and after Mary’s release rents a flat which they share. In the meantime Norman Scase, father of the raped girl, is planning to kill the released murderess, partly as a duty, partly in accordance with a promise made to his wife when she was dying of cancer.
The plot has a melodramatic power, and it is perhaps this melodramatic quality that has made the book an immense commercial success. In the US film rights have been sold, reviews have tended to be long and enthusiastic, although in England the reception has been markedly cooler. Innocent Blood shows among other things the risks of too much ambition. The puzzle element in a crime story has been a crutch for many. Chandler, for example, found creating a puzzle a bore, but the necessary …