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To Author, Nothing and Everything Is Sacred

P.D. James' 'Death in Holy Orders' once again shows her fascination with crime and the clergy.

May 10, 2001|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A body lies buried in beach sand, a steep drop from the cliffs surrounding St. Anselm Theological School. The Porsche-driving seminarian, Ronald Treeves, is dead. It looks like natural causes, but his tycoon father, Sir Alred, doubts it. He calls in Scotland Yard. Did Father John, the convicted pedophile, kill Ronald? Maybe it was Archdeacon Crampton, who resents the elitist school and might go to any extreme to see it closed.

No one at St. Anselm knows what violent acts obstruct the path leading to the killer. No one except P.D. James, the author of "Death in Holy Orders."

This is only the most recent foray into the twined themes of crime and the clergy for James, who has set a number of her 15 detective stories in and around the Church of England. What is it about religion that fascinates England's baroness of bludgeon? On a recent spin through Los Angeles she takes the time to explain.

Dressed in a pale-blue jacket and skirt, with a blue headband in her short white hair, she is settled in the shade of her hotel. At age 80, she is not about to start sunbathing. Her British refinements--a quiet way of speaking, smooth white hands that she folds on the table in front of her--are a subtle contrast to her honesty about church life.

"I have a great affection for the Church of England," she begins. "I was brought up in it, and I am still a communicant member." So it's not a desire for revenge that motivates her to explore the darker corners of church life. She is devoted to her religious traditions, particularly the written texts, and belongs to the Prayer Book Society, which is committed to preserving the original language of the Book of Common Prayer, despite newer variations.

Yet she has no illusions that "C of E," as she calls it, is perfect. "There is quite a lot of feeling that priests as a whole are rather more virtuous than the rest of us," she says. But at St. Anselm, it's different. "As Emma [a visiting lecturer in the story] says, 'They are merely men.' "

One of those men, Father John in "Holy Orders," is a convicted pedophile who could have sprung from the daily news.

"There's almost an obsession with pedophilia in England," says James, and unbalanced clergy, she notes, are only part of the problem. "Sexually liberal adults are colluding with young girls, who behave and dress as grown women. Yet they are outraged by pedophilia." James has cast Father John as a decent man. "I don't see him as having done anything wrong," she says. "Yet he is unjustly convicted, and his life is ruined.'

Part of the tension in her stories comes from her reverence for her religion, which is always played against religion's imperfections. Even the setting for the new book points to problems. "I wanted to write about a theological school," she says. "Too remote, too elite, too incestuous. That is what the archdeacon says about it." As the outside observer and teller of the tale, James rarely gives her own opinions but quotes the characters who express them best.

"My credo is to write the best book I can with the inspiration that comes to me," she says. "If I'm too timid to take on the subject of pedophilia, I better not set my book in a theological college."

Beyond the themes it allows her to explore, a story set in a religious institution has another appeal for James: A church is the last place a person expects to find a villain. "There is a powerful contrast," she says. "We think of hierarchy, order, decency, morality. Compare that to the appalling crime of murder, which is the taking of what we can never give back."

She has set that contrast to great effect in stories such as "A Taste for Death" (1986), in which bodies are discovered in the blood-bathed vestry. And she's enjoyed it in some of her favorite mysteries, Dorothy Sayer's "The Nine Tailors" and Agatha Christie's "Murder at the Vicarage." Sayer uses religion to philosophize, Christie to snoop. James uses it to draw observations about human nature and the challenge of keeping the faith. "I'm interested in how people come to their beliefs," she says. "It would seem strange to ignore that part of a character."

Her ease in exploring personal beliefs relates her work to other mystery writers, says Barry Martin of Book'em Mysteries in South Pasadena. "In the '90s the crime novel evolved," he says. "It has become the quintessential way of dealing with issues, from the past and present." And frequently, the issue is religion. Other best-selling authors in Martin's store include Ellis Peters, whose characters are medieval monks, and Faye Kellerman, who explores the Jewish faith in her books.

In "Holy Orders," Sir Treeves attends a Sunday service. James describes the scene: "He speaks the Creed [the essential beliefs of Christianity] that dates from the 1300s and wonders to himself, 'Is that still what people believe?' I doubt there are two people in that church with him who have the same understanding of what they are saying in the Creed."

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