February 13, 1995 12:00 PM

by P.D. James

Someone is killing the staff of Peverell Press. First, senior editor Sonia Clements is found sprawled in the archives room, an apparent suicide. Then there’s a second body, a toy snake mockingly wound round its neck. Fear begins to permeate the venerable London firm’s grand Venetian-style palazzo, becoming as inescapable as the sound of the Thames lapping outside.

Murder among the literati would seem a textbook case for British crime queen P.D. James’s popular detective Adam Dalgliesh, himself a published poet. But welcome as it is to see the pensive Metropolitan Police commander again after his creator’s recent foray into science fiction, he remains an unsatisfyingly shadowy presence here.

Dalgliesh isn’t the only character underemployed in Original Sin. The novel is crowded, probably too crowded, with interesting types—including a poignant over-the-hill mystery writer—but they bob along the narrative in an undifferentiated panorama. Without a central focus, the story loses momentum despite James’s ingenious plot.

For all its sins, the mystery remains a cut above most thanks to James’s limber prose and keen sense of people and place. But occasional flashes—a stroke of deft foreshadowing here, a vivid architectural sketch there—remind the reader that she can do even better. Maybe James should have listened to editors instead of killing them off. (Knopf, $24)

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