RogerBW's Blog

Innocent Blood, P. D. James 18 March 2022

1980 thriller, a stand-alone novel. Philippa Palfrey, who's always known she was adopted, makes use of a change in the law to discover the identities of her biological parents – who turn out to be a notorious rapist and murderess.

This isn't a mystery: there's tension over what will happen, but no puzzle to be solved or question of who or even howdunnit. James continues to be an enthusiast for the gloomy literary style, and when towards the end someone commits suicide, my feeling at least was that that was clearly the only way out of this world of unrelieved tawdriness and misery and it was a shame nobody else should have followed their example. ("He's got away from us, Jack.")

In terms of plot, it's simple enough: Philippa, discovering that her biological mother, Mary Ducton, is due to be released from prison soon, goes to meet her, and invites her to share a flat in London over the summer before she goes up to Cambridge. (Her biological father died in prison.) Meanwhile, in occasional chapters, Norman Scase, the father of the child who was murdered years ago, is trying to hunt down Mary…

Part of the problem is that the narrative is soaked in James's attitudes (which weren't universal even in 1980 - I was there). For example, the terms are always "her mother" and "her adoptive mother", and there's a constant undercurrent that biology will out and is much more important than upbringing, no matter that Philippa has no memory of the time before she was adopted. If Philippa is clever now, it's clearly nothing to do with the expensive education and society of intelligent people, it must be entirely that at least one of her "real" parents was clever too.

There's a description of the murder: Mary knew that her husband Martin "liked" little girls but, one assumes, never expected him to do anything about it. (Or maybe she looked the other way; it's not clear.) When she came home to find the victim lying around weeping, well, there's a bit of a blank – but she's not supposed to be a stupid woman. Did she really never consider abandoning her husband and going straight to the police, rather than contributing to the crime by adding murder? (Particularly given her attitude, expressed repeatedly, that the rape of a child isn't so serious a thing anyway and probably the child's fault really.) I'd certainly hope that my own wife would think of that had I committed such an offence! But no, it's straight to the murder, and then to the cover-up, and there's no evidence that she ever thought of doing anything else. (Of course this is in an account supposedly written by her for the benefit of Philippa, and there's evidence later to suggest that she has lied about it, but that just moves the answer – to what was to my mind the most interesting question here – even further into the distance. That is also why I'm separating this from James's putative attitudes, though she writes this part with great sympathy and everyone else, middle class or prole scum, with blatant contempt.)

The other part of the problem is that while the writing has some definite moments most of what happens is dull. Philippa and Mary go out to a market, and work in a fish and chip shop. Norman Scase moves into a nasty hotel as part of trying to find Mary, and there are background characters with whom he has reluctantly to interact. But everybody here is a horrible person, just in different ways, so the overall mood is of unrelieved grimness.

And then, nearly at the end, there's a twist… which to me was less shocking in the revelation itself than in the implication that this young woman, whom we are told repeatedly has won a scholarship to Cambridge, has not noticed something that would have been utterly obvious to her on the basis of the information she has available. (Gung fur unq orra tvira hc sbe nqbcgvba orsber gur encr naq zheqre, v.r. "ure zbgure qvqa'g jnag ure", engure guna va gur jnxr bs vg.) I didn't much like her already, and that left me wondering why I was reading about these people.

The twist in the epilogue, gung Cuvyvccn'f nqbcgvir sngure unf orra va yhfg jvgu ure fvapr ur svefg fnj ure jura fur jnf rvtug naq gurl arrq gb shpx whfg bapr gb trg vg bhg bs gurve flfgrzf nsgre juvpu rirelguvat vf svar, left me wondering why James had bothered to write the book at all.

I mean, she can write dash it all! That's more than a lot of authors can manage. Why doesn't she write about people who aren't utterly without redeeming qualities?

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