December 30, 2003


Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P.D. James (Patricia A Ward, May 16, 1984, Christian Century)

The classic detective story cannot exist apart from the principles of the existence of good and evil and of poetic justice. The crime is usually a murder; with the discovery of the identity of the murderer, the criminal experiences a kind of Aristotelian reversal. The reader closes the book knowing that justice will be carried out. Some literary critics have trouble with the conventionality of the principle of good and evil in the detective story; its focal point has been the cleverness of the investigator of the crime, not the psychology of the characters caught up in the drama of the crime.

In an article in Crime Writers, edited by H. R. F. Keating (1978), P. D. James defended Dorothy Sayers against that charge, pointing out that Sayers had begun to include the details of ordinary life in the detective story, placing events in a real world. Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, too, “are novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles. Both seek, not always successfully, to reconcile the conventions of the classical detective story with the novel of social realism.’’

On more fundamental grounds. James defends the crime novel in the hands of these writers because they never trivialize crime:

"A genre which rests on the fundamental belief that willful killing is wrong and that every human being, no matter how unpleasant, inconvenient or worthless his life may be, has a right to live it to the last natural moment, needs no particular apology in an age in which gratuitous violence and arbitrary death have become common." [...]

Adam Dalgleish, the investigator in this first group of novels, is relentless, clever and intuitive, but he is no stereotype. A cool professional, he is also painfully aware of the dilemmas of his work and the fallibility of human nature. The writer of two books of poetry, he suffers because his self-knowledge permits him truly to understand the motives of the characters of each murder drama. When he questions a striking and intelligent woman about her past and her relationship with a very ordinary, but safe, friend and confidante, he is told that he could never understand. “But he did understand,” writes James. “There had been a boy in his prep school like that, so ordinary, so safe, that he was a kind of talisman against death and disaster.”

Adam is strangely detached and uncommitted. He has suffered the tragedy of the deaths of his wife and infant son. Although the threads of a romance are introduced in the early novels, Dalgleish does not remarry. In A Mind to Murder, he visits a Catholic church to light a candle on the 14th anniversary of his wife’s death, but he is not a believer. “He thought of this most private action in his detached and secretive life, not as superstition or piety, but as a habit which he could not break even if he wished.”

Dalgleish is perhaps a modern Everyman; aware of the great existential issues of life, he takes no stand on them. Although he is the son of an Anglican clergyman, he is alone and self-sufficient in a world of ambiguity and violence where love often is a possessive passion which is easily transformed into hate. In Shroud, Adam passes through the outpatient department of the hospital and is reminded of his own mortality. It is not that he fears death. “But he did grievously fear old age, mortal illness and disablement. He dreaded the loss of independence, the indignities of senility. . . . He was not arrogant enough to suppose himself secure from the lot of other men. But in the meantime, he preferred not to be reminded.”

Adam refuses to discuss the motivation to murder in terms of sin or wickedness. He agrees with Dr. Etherege in A Mind to Murder when asked about the unknown murderer: “Wicked? I’m not competent to discuss this in theological terms.” There are no clear-cut theological answers which explain the moral ambiguities of human action. James has commented:

"Dalgleish’s failing as a human being . . . is that he is very careful to avoid commitment; detecting is in a sense an ideal job for him, because although he is constantly interfering with other people, finding things out about them and coming into their lives in a very dramatic way, he must remain detached -- he’d be an unsatisfactory policeman otherwise."

The modern secular rationalist wears this inability to commit like a badge of honor, the inability to determine what is good and what evil and to acknowledge the superiority of their own civilization. Tolerance is their mantra, no matter how vile the things they're required to tolerate. A quintessential moment came last week when Dr. Dean found himself unable to judge Osama bin Laden. In effect, such people ally themselves with evil even as the congratuulate themselves on doing good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2003 12:07 PM

Knowledge, without wisdom, always results in evil.

Posted by: jd watson at December 30, 2003 2:34 PM

Orrin doesn't even accept it's knowledge.

So non-knowledge, without (or even with) wisdom, also always results in evil.

What's a body to do?

However, I deny the assertion that secular materialists cannot commit. We are free to find evil anywhere, including in religion.

As it happens, we find it there more than just about anywhere else. It drives the religionists nuts, because they think they're better.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 30, 2003 3:50 PM

Of course there's evil in religion--men are evil.

Posted by: oj at December 30, 2003 4:22 PM

Unfortunately, religious certainty is a great evil amplifier.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 30, 2003 4:46 PM

From your book review:

"But really, it's not so strange; if you accept that evil is real, how can you not accept that good is real?  And if pure reason suggests that these are merely words, just definitions and not realities, but every fiber of your being tells you that they exist and that you can differentiate the one from the other and that one is preferable to the other, then who will not choose to believe and who will not choose good over evil?"

Ignoring for the moment that there is nothing in pure reason to suggest those are just words, how is the rest of that sentence inaccessible to an areligionist?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 30, 2003 5:28 PM


It's totally accessible, but makes you a religionist. In fact, it seems the rationalist course to faith. Easy enough to disbelieve in God--impossible to believe that human life doesn't matter at all.

Posted by: oj at December 30, 2003 5:39 PM


It depends on the proposition in question. If I am certain that "love thy neighbor as yourself" is a true religious proposition, then evil is unlikely to result, much less be magnified.

However, if I am certain that "I am a guide to the blind", the likelihood of evil being generated and magnified is great, as you said.

Therefore your statement of religious certainty requires some qualification. As do mine.

Posted by: Judd at December 30, 2003 5:44 PM

No, it doesn't make me a religionist.

It makes me a member of a species that has evolved a social existence. The ability to instinctively distinguish between good and evil in a social context comes with the territory.

All humans, psychopaths aside, possess empathy, and have a sense of the future. Humans are also highly attuned to other's reciprocity violations. In a social environment, those are the critical ingredients for self-organizing morality.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 31, 2003 6:16 AM

"The ability to instinctively distinguish between good and evil in a social context comes with the territory.

All humans, psychopaths aside . . ."

Well, that defines away the problem nicely, Candide. Just start calling prisons "psychiatric hospitals" and we will have reached Utopia, by definition.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 31, 2003 7:47 AM


As David suggests, that's the kind of utopianism that the non-JCs are always prey to.

Posted by: oj at December 31, 2003 8:22 AM

David--nothing I said indicated that only psycopaths commit evil; rather, anyone other than a psycopath can readily identify an instance thereof.

To what kind of utopianism was I referring?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 31, 2003 10:53 AM

Your picture of human nature being communal, social, reciprocal, etc.

Posted by: oj at December 31, 2003 11:01 AM


But it's also the case that humans will tend to self-organize into groups of Us and Them, which tends to change the whole dynamics of the empathy and reciprocity forces into "Let's get them before they get us, just in case they're planning to get us before we get them."

Nasty, brutish, short(, and clannish).

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 31, 2003 12:13 PM

True, Mike, but only because primitive humans had a hard time recognizing other humans as humans.

I have read, but cannot verify, that among every primitive society, the word for "us" is "the men" or "human" and everybody else is "the other" or "the inhumans."

One of the very few positive things you can say about universalizing religions is that they eroded that sort of barrier.

William Arens had a lot to say about it in "The Man-eating Myth."

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 31, 2003 5:13 PM

The obvious import of Darwinism is that anyone identifiably different from you ethnically is in fact "them". It's to the credit of most Darwinists as moral beings, though their discredit in terms of rational consistency, that they insist different colored moths represent an evolutionary breakthrough but that human race is a social construct. This was the rock upon which Stephen Jay Gould's Darwinian faith foundered.

Posted by: oj at December 31, 2003 5:20 PM

There's less difference among any two groups of humans than there is between two breeds of Scottish cattle, and nobody mistakes those for different species.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 31, 2003 9:45 PM


Don't look at me to argue that speciation is real. We're all men and they're all cows.

Posted by: oj at December 31, 2003 10:43 PM

You could stand a little consistency yourself. Colored moths did not represent some evolutionary breakthrough in the terms you propose; rather, it was alleged to show natural selection in progress working on inherited variation and resulting in a population changing a particular characteristic over time.

As for Darwinism, it could only show that them is us. There is as much variation within any given ethnic group as there is among ethnic groups.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 1, 2004 2:17 PM

The interrelationships of primitive groups was not determined by darwinism, which is a process not a thing, but by ignorance.

I wish I had the linguistic skills and the time to trace what I think is the great human social adventure, which is the recognition that them is us, from Gilgamesh, through the first (so far as I can tell) treaty designed to allow trading between enemies at Ebla, and the kula trade to the Treaty of the Steelyard.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 2, 2004 1:11 PM