New year, new commitment to finishing my CWA top 100 challenge, and so on to the final P. D. James title on the list, Innocent Blood.
I’ve been pretty frank in my opinions about P. D. James in previous reviews – the overwhelming upper-middle-classness of her characters, the fact that everyone thinks and speaks in the same cultured voice and likes poetry. No problem with liking poetry, but honestly there are many people who simply don’t even notice it. Anyway, Innocent Blood has the same flaws, but much against my will I very much liked it.
If I had to put my finger on why, I think it is because it comes across more like a Ruth Rendell novel. Darkness, obsession, shabby accommodation, nobody very nice, and cruel twists of fate.
Girl Guide Julie Scase was murdered by a husband and wife – he sexually assaulted the girl; she killed her.
Ten years later the wife, Mary Ducton, is released from prison. Norman Scase, Julie’s father, leaves his job as a local government accounts clerk, sells his house, and buys a raincoat and a kitchen knife. He promised his wife something on her deathbed and he needs to see it through.
‘I have to retire early because there is something I must do in the next few months, a task which will take a great deal of time and planning. I have to find and kill the murderess of my child.’
Outwardly boring and conformist, Norman has a history of juvenile delinquency including shop-lifting and picking pockets which is a great help in hunting down his prey.
Meanwhile, an incredibly unsympathetic educated girl called Philippa Palfrey is on a path which will lead her to Mary Ducton and then, inevitably, to Norman.
Philippa is full-on P. D. James. Here she is tasting some wine on her seventeenth birthday:
‘…with this one I can’t distinguish taste from smell and from the feel of it in my mouth. They aren’t separate sensations, it’s a trinity of pleasure.’
Anyway, she is something of a steamroller, getting her own way and damn the rest of you – it says something that Norman Scase, sitting 24/7 in a cheap hotel room watching for Mary Ducton, is the sympathetic character.
A motif running through the book is the interaction between people and the state, represented largely by social workers. We see them mainly through Philippa’s rather self-consciously superior eyes (her father is a champagne socialist), as adversaries or at least obstacles in the path of her ambitions, but I think they come out of the book rather well on balance.
In Innocent Blood James wove together compelling narratives, some extremely gritty themes, and also paints a vivid picture of London in the late 70s. It’s probably the only one of her books which I would actively recommend.
P. D. James
First published by Faber and Faber Limited, 1980
352 pages in print
Stargazerpuj’s Book Blog: One of P. D. James’ best known novels, this is worth a read. This is not a super quick read, though, and less patient readers might not care to wade through the detailed storytelling that James is well known for.