Literary Fiction: Innocent Blood, by P.D. James

4.0 out of 5 stars A failure of love

Written in 1980, Innocent Blood is the first of P.D. James’s few stand alone novels. No detectives here, and more secrets than mysteries. Philippa Palfrey is the spoiled adopted child of a wealthy, emotionally barren couple. Although she was eight years old at the time she was taken in, Philippa retains only hazy impressions from her early childhood, and now determines to meet her birth mother, Mary Ducton, whom she believed was dead. But she doesn’t let the truth, when she discovers it, to hamper her in her quest to find answers to “who I am,” not even upon learning that her mother murdered a child and is about to be paroled. Philippa sets up housekeeping with Mary, ignorant of the fact that her mother is being stalked by the father of the murdered child, who intends to commit a revenge killing. The story shuttles between these two plots, which are deftly designed and written with James’s usual skill and elegance. It is the characters that propel this novel out of the crime genre and into the realm of literary fiction. Philippa has more than her share of the arrogance and self involvement that define late adolescence, which makes her less sympathetic than expected. Mary Ducton is much a victim of her own emotions, and adoptive mother Hilda is well meaning but ineffectual. Philippa’s birth father, a rapist, is dead, and her adoptive father Maurice is a sociologist, very supercilious for a man who had to acquire his status by marrying money, and coolly amoral to boot. The prospective murderer, James Scase, has been paralyzed since losing his daughter, and now becomes a most wily and cold-blooded stalker. None of the characters, including the minor ones, is particularly appealing, yet such is the power of the writing that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages. There is a most definite denoument to this novel, for the reader. The characters, however, still have much to learn.

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