Members of the Crime Writers' Association, who by definition have violent or vicious imaginations, always used to be so gentle in person that a visitor likened meetings to "a cosy women's institute". But, a few years ago, some (mostly young and male) authors of "noir" thrillers drummed up some useful publicity by attacking other (mostly old and female) fellow members, inaccurately described as "blue rinses". Their novels were perceived to be no more than frivolous entertainment, bearing no relationship to the brutalities of real life. Traditional murder mysteries, following the good old whodunnit rules, were bourgeois and out of date. Crime should be shown as it mostly is, the province of the illiterate and disadvantaged working class.
The row turned into a silly-season story and provoked a few high-profile resignations from the CWA, but it didn't change anything, because all crime fiction, whether rough and tough or wholly genteel, remains inherently, inevitably unreal. Very few crime novelists have any personal experience of crime or detection, so their serving police officers or private eyes on the mean streets are quite as much creatures of fantasy as any aristocratic, Shakespeare-quoting amateur. So the world's favourite crime writers are still those reviled, respectable English ladies, dead (Agatha Christie and D L Sayers) and alive, of whom the most popular and famous is P D James, a life peer and the veteran author of 15 international bestsellers.
Her new book uses a defiantly traditional form. Prosperous, middle-class people find their comfortable way of life disrupted by murder; the brave and selfless detective hero, as surrogate for a knight in shining armour, sorts everything out in the end. Death in Holy Orders even observes the convention of "a body on the library floor" - in this case, the floor of a private chapel - with the requisite closed circle of suspects in a country house, a complication of alibis, clues and red herrings, and a policeman who quotes poetry and writes it, too.
Phyllis James always says that her ideas for books start with a place. Here, she returns to East Anglia, where she has set several previous books. In an isolated setting on one of the bleakest parts of the coast, a rich spinster benefactor has set up a High Anglican theological college in a Victorian mansion. A visiting archdeacon is found with his brains beaten out in front of the altar at the very moment when Commander Adam Dalgleish of the Met happens to be in residence. There is no suggestion that he might be a suspect. Instead, after a run-through of the motives and opportunities of clergy, tutors, students and servants in turn, Dalgleish identifies the murderer. It is not giving much away to say that the author's respect for religion makes it obvious at an early stage that no priest could be a serious suspect.
P D James's characters - murderers and all - are intelligent and rational and make moral choices. Some of them articulate the author's own conservative (both large and small "c") views. One condemns a "Church for cool Britannia", its rituals "without mystery, services with banal hymns, a debased liturgy and the Eucharist conducted as if it were a parish bean feast". A dedicated detective inspector loses her vocation for policing because she believes she has been maligned by the Macpherson report, which, in identifying institutional racism, was itself racist against white officers. We learn that homes invariably betray character - "more can be learnt about a witness from an unobtrusive scrutiny of his rooms than from a dozen direct questions" - so descriptions of books, pictures and the arrangement of artefacts alternate with interrogations. Dialogue consists of long, grammatical sentences; narrative is in a leisurely, mandarin style, as in the statement: "Any visitor to an historic town or city quickly becomes aware in his or her peregrinations that the most attractive houses in the centre are invariably the offices of lawyers." The isolated, beleaguered community is described in exact, elaborate detail, and all its members' complicated human motives and impulses are minutely analysed.
The end result is a sombre, serious novel about guilt, remorse, responsibility and death. The tone is clear early on, as the background of each participant is described, because their histories include as many unnatural deaths (a couple of murders, a suicide, a car crash and a hunting accident) as if the author had been writing out the cast of a soap opera.
P D James has always chosen to work within the constraints of mystery fiction, complete with its "fair" clues, forensic analyses and surprise denouements. She believes that, just as the strict sonnet form can contain great poetry, a traditional detective novel can bear the weight of a serious moral theme. I think so, too, and found this one absorbing and provocative. But it's not light entertainment.
Jessica Mann's most recent novel, Under a Dark Sun, is published by Constable (£16.99)