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Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2001 / 21 Elul, 5761

George Will

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The edge of a moral sleuth -- LONDON -- Baroness James of Holland Park is the somewhat forbidding title of the energetic 81-year-old grandmother known to millions of readers worldwide as P. D. James, author of elegantly crafted and morally complex detective novels, the latest being "Death in Holy Orders." However, Holland Park is just a nice swath of urban green space across a busy street from her modest home here, and she functions as a baroness only when in the House of Lords, as that 700-year-old body does what it can to cause whatever government controls the House of Commons to have second, or perhaps first, thoughts about what it cannot really be stopped from doing.

It is instructive to solicit the judgment of the elderly about contemporary conditions, because, as James has written, episodes long past "catch on the threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat," and provide benchmarks for marking progress, or what passes for it. Her formative years were dominated by reverberations of the catastrophe of 1914-18, which cast "a shadow of uncomprehended vicarious sadness." Her generation "was born under a pall of inarticulate grieving." Measured against that benchmark, contemporary Britain is blessed.

Yet the "devolution" of power from Westminster to Welsh and Scottish assemblies is but one, and not the most profound, sign of a country less unified than it once was by certain common beliefs. Those, she says, centered on the empire, the monarchy and the Church of England and its liturgy. The attenuation -- to put it mildly -- of those beliefs, and the replacement of religion by sport, particularly tribal loyalties to soccer teams, has resulted, James says with mingled regret and complacency, in a "less moral country, but a more equal and fair one." Time was, "ordinary people certainly were more honest -- but, then, many lived under the fear of hell and the law." Progress. Perhaps.

She is mildly disdainful of what she calls "the climate of compensation," which Americans call the entitlement mentality of a therapeutic culture. "People," she says bemusedly, "expect to be counseled if they suffer trauma." Recalling the soldiers returning from two wars, she says tartly, "I don't remember them all coming home expecting to be counseled about what they went through." Remembering what fell upon London six decades ago, she dryly wonders, "Would there be enough counselors to go around after a bad bombing?"

Her judgments have the edge of a survivor from a sterner age. Five years ago, heeding Samuel Johnson's dictum that "At 77 it is time to be in earnest," she published "a fragment of autobiography" titled "Time to Be in Earnest." In it she approvingly recalled a similar astringency in a letter Jane Austen wrote when she learned that a neighbor had given birth to her 18th child: "I would recommend to her and Mr. Dee the simple regimen of separate rooms."

James believes that her vocation, writing novels, has a mildly moral as well as entertaining purpose. She recalls that Victorian novelists rather defensively claimed a moral mission because then there "hung about novel-reading the sulphurous whiff of indolent and almost decadent self-indulgence." She knows that novels are unlikely instruments for the reform of institutions or individuals, but she thinks most novelists have an "urge to nudge society's inclinations in a direction more agreeable to our own beliefs and prejudices."

Women, she says, have an eye for details and hence for clues, are more interested in motive than violence, and are gifted with psychological subtlety and the exploration of moral choice. Besides, "bringing order out of disorder is a female function." This thought has two virtues: in addition to scandalizing a certain stripe of feminist, it is explanatory.

It explains why women (Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, James herself, among others) are such masters of the detective genre: They have a natural aptitude for it. Especially for detection about murder, because death underscores "the fragility of life." Hence, again, the female function -- women as agents of order. Furthermore, as a Christian, James believes detective fiction "provides for the reader the comforting reassurance that, despite our apparent powerlessness, we yet inhabit an intelligible universe."

Although she is fond of Henry James's statement, "We trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations and great generosities," she doubts that it is still accurate. Less demanding entertainments -- television, principally -- have largely displaced novels. But not entirely. Today's readers, too, have their James.

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