Death of an Expert Witness– Another James Classic and a Lesson for Christians

By the mid-70s, P.D. James was on a major roll, when it comes to mysteries or crime fiction. One can surmise that her publisher was even allowing her more verbage, because Death of an Expert Witness runs to 352 pages, which is about a hundred more than some of the early novels. But what had prepared James for writing these spine-tingling crime novels? You look at her pictures and say—- oh, that’s ‘Aunt Betty’ or at the later pictures and say ‘that’s my Grandmother’. Here is the little bio summary you usually find about her….

“P.D. James was born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge High School. Widely acknowledged as “the greatest contemporary writer of classic crime” (The London Sunday Times), she has written twenty books and been awarded major prizes for her crime writing in Great Britain, America, Italy, and Scandinavia. After 30 years in the civil service, including a senior position in the Police and Criminal Justice Departments of Great Britain’s Home Office, she held a series of distinguished cultural and literary offices, among them Governor of the BBC, on the boards of the Arts Council and British Council and as a magistrate in London. She is the lifelong President of the Society of Authors. She was awarded the OBE in 1983 and created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. In 1999 she was given the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award. She has honorary doctorates from seven British universities. James is the widow of a doctor and has two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.”

What is notably missing from this resume is— college!! James is incredibly literate for a popular novelist and yet….. no college. This frankly surprised me as much as when I discovered that my doctor father C.K. Barrett didn’t have an earned doctorate! Well, he was given a doctorate for his marvelous John commentary, so you could say he earned it for sure…. but not by matriculation.

And this brings me to something important…a lesson we learn from Ms. James. You can be literate and write beautifully without higher degrees. You can also have higher degrees and write nothing but turgid prose. And one of the major reasons for the latter is a near total failure to read great literature and let it affect one, a near total failure to actually take courses in literature or creative writing. This problem especially plagues those who go into Biblical studies from a background which focused almost entirely on the sciences and math, especially the hard sciences.

If you look once more at Ms. James resume you will discover that despite her work in a scientific realm, she acquired a beautiful prose style….. through reading and absorbing great literature. You become what you admire. Of course it is also the case that you need to have a good clear brain, capable of logical and consecutive thought.

As for the novel itself, Death of an Expert Witness, which I picked up at Powell’s in Portland, its a real brain teaser. I honestly could not figure out who murdered the expert witness, Dr. Lorrimer. There were so many enticing false leads, red herrings, and mischievous characters in the novel that even to the end of the novel, I was kept in suspense. You will likely also be scratching your head if you read this as well. Three things standout about this novel which reflect regular themes or features in the James ouevre: 1) eccentric characters, the vast majority of whom generate very little sympathy. James does not really follow the rule ‘you must produce some likable characters so your readers will want to read more about them and care about them’. Apart from Adam Dalgleish himself, there are seldom such characters in her novels. Some induce pity in the reader, but rarely empathy or ongoing interest. It is the solving of the crime itself which keeps readers reading in these novels; 2) set piece settings. James loves to set up a scenario involving a small community, a small hospital, a small lab, a small village where usually the killer has to be one of a limited number of known people. This only enhances the horror, for what sort of ordinary person you know well could be such a ruthless killer? James plays on our naivete about such things. Most ruthless killers look as harmless as a fly, or more recently they are our children gone mad; 3) James even in the 60s was writing out of a post-Christian setting, where the church was poorly attended, and even the best of characters like Dalgleish reflect the general malaise of loss of faith in God and in Christianity as well. Oddly, what does not seem to go with such loss of faith in God is a loss of belief in humanity. Indeed, many characters in James novels are all too naive about the human potential for evil, and real wickedness. One is reminded of W.B. Yeats famous poem entitled ‘the Second Coming’ where he bemoans… “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”

Yes indeed, there is plenty of passionate intensity (and carnal knowledge) in a novel like Death of an Expert Witness and also the ennui and boredom and loneliness of characters who have little or no convictions of any specific kind. It is not a world I should like to live in. But this brings me to an important point for ministers, Christian counselors and the like….

There really is no place in the ministry for an under-estimation of the wickedness the human heart can conceive and then try to act upon. Jesus warned us that all sorts of wickedness is conceived and comes out of the human heart (see Mark 7) and we should believe him. Our major enemy lies not at the borders of our land, but at the borders of and within our hearts. Where does adultery come from? Within the human heart. Where does murderous intent come from? Within the human heart. Where does war come from? Within the human heart. And I could go on. Remember the famous Pogo strip where Pogo returns to his commander and says “I have seen the enemy. The enemy is us.”

This means that the nonsense that ‘we are all basically good at heart’ or ‘we are all lovable creatures of God’ or other such pablum or panacea must be renounced. It is simply not true, and it is disproved every single day if one bothers to watch the news. As the Psalmist warned “the heart is desperately corrupt….” It is precisely the under-estimation of sin and wickedness that leads to shallow views of salvation and its necessity. It also leads to bad counseling. I will give you one example.

Many years ago, there was a high steeple preacher from the Midwest who came to preach at my Annual Conference meeting at Lake Junalaska. He was a riveting preacher, and his sermons were much commended. He especially impressed my wife, and she is a tough audience when it comes to preaching. He gave every impression of being not just a gifted minister but a very Christian person.

A year or more later, his wife was found garroted with a coat hanger in their home, barely clinging to life. Eventually, she was put into a home for those in a vegetative state. As the investigation of this crime proceeded the police uncovered the fact that the threat letters this minister had said he had been receiving for some time were typed on a typewriter found at a nearby seminary…. a seminary where this minister regularly studied and wrote. It was then further uncovered that this minister had been having an affair with the daughter of a bishop of the same denomination. The matter ended with the defrocking of the minister, but without any conviction for the crime, which fell short of murder. There was a smoking gun when it came to evidence, but they could not find the bullets….

I mention all this to remind us all of what Chaucer said “if gold rusts, what then will iron do”. If it is possible for actual Christian persons to behave this way, why should we be shocked by the wickedness of others. The older I get, the more convince I become about the reality of original sin, and thus the profound need for genuine salvation, and rescue from ourselves. Ministers above all cannot afford to be wide-eyed and naive optimists. Not if they genuinely believe what Jesus said about the human heart. James’ classic novel Death of an Expert Witness is a salutary and timely reminder of the real nature of human fallenness. But will we ever learn the lesson?

  • John W Brandkamp

    Wow. Brilliant and scary. Thanks for this. Her “Children of Men” is magnificent.

  • pastorm

    Just after I read this, I saw former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, a James-like character in some ways, celebrating his primary victory in a congressional race. He was going on about a “God of second chances,” language that plays well in that state. The “Morning Joe” crowd seemed in agreement with that sentiment. Joe Scarborough, who went through an investigation about the death of one of his staffers when he was in Congress, said that the best thing to do in situations such as Sanford’s is “to get it out there.” Another at the table, maybe John Heilman, noted that the American people will accept an apology and are basically forgiving, as the people of South Carolina had just demonstrated.

    But perhaps forgiveness isn’t the most important issue in such cases. I had an experience somewhat akin to what you described about the pastor who spoke at your Annual Conference (I know the story). I served 35 years in Indiana where we had a charasmatic bishop and former president of a national ecumenical body who left his position, citing exhaustion. All sorts of allegations of unfaithfulness began to surface, involving such diverse types as a fitness instructor to a politician’s spouse. He eventually surrendered his orders and left the state. Some years later, he returned to seek restoration of his orders so that he might serve in another denomination. I, for better or for worse, served on the group that had to make the decision of whether or not to restore the orders. Needless to say, that was quite an experience, especially his appearance before us. Discussion finally turned to what decision to make. One member of the group asked how we could fail to return the orders as we are a forgiving people as Christians. Others, including me, saw forgiveness as a given. Yes, we forgave him, but the issue became what I’ll call suitability for ministry. With quite a “track record,” would we want to unleash him, so to speak, to exhibit the same type of behavior as a pastor in another setting even if in a different denomination? We voted not to do so.

    As you know well, James centers on the church in “Death in Holy Orders,” one of my favorites of her books.

    I also read a lot of medieval mysteries all of which have some mention of the church and clergy, with some having major characters who are in orders of some sort.

  • Y

    “If it is possible for actual Christian persons to behave this way, why should we be shocked by the wickedness of others. ” How can you refer to this man as an “actual Christian?” His “Christ” certainly wasn’t Jesus.

  • Sara Anderson

    I am familiar with both situations mentioned. I have heard people praise both men as phenomenal preachers, but they were not men to be trusted. We forgive, but do not allow them to be responsible for the spiritual health of congregations. I agree that James does force us to face wickedness in our own small worlds, and “Death in Holy Orders” is my favorite James book.

  • Josh

    Thanks for the insightful post Dr. Witherington.

    Which James novel would you recommend as a first read for someone who has yet to venture into her body of work?

  • Ben Witherington

    Howdy Pastor M. I absolutely agree there is a difference between forgiveness, and removing the consequences of someone’s sin. Two different things altogether. You probably made the right decision. I wonder if you have read any P.C. Doherty medieval mysteries. I recommend his Hugh Corbett series. He’s a Catholic here in the U.K. and I’m getting together with him next month. Blessings BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Josh: Death in Holy Orders is excellent, but I prefer Original Sin which will really raise the hair on your neck. BW3

  • pastorm

    Yes, Hugh Corbett is also one of my favorites. I like Matthew Bartholomew from Susanna Gregory and the crusty Crowner John from Bernard Knight.

  • Luke

    Should you ever get around to reading it, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on her book Children of Men.