Unconvinced that his son Ronald, an ecclesiastical student at St. Anselm’s College, died by accident, arms manufacturer Sir Alred Treeves leans on Commander Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police to return to the Sussex haven where he spent several summers as a boy to investigate. By the time he’s arrived, there’s been a second death, though one that passes as heart failure. The following morning, however, Sir Alred’s suspicions are obligingly confirmed by the spectacular murder of Archdeacon Matthew Crampton, found prostrate in a pool of blood before one of the church’s treasures, a painting of the Last Judgment someone has just vandalized. Since the Archdeacon was pressing to shut St. Anselm’s down, had dug up evidence years ago that sent one of the resident priests to jail for child molesting, and was still being hounded as the murderer of his first wife by a visiting police inspector, there’s no shortage of suspects. And James takes the time to cast suspicion on everyone from the senior student to the handyman’s helper to a researcher on the domestic lives of the Tractarians. But except for an uncharacteristically dewy-eyed portrait of a Cambridge don, each suspect and subplot is handled with all the penetration you’d expect in an apotheosis of the triple-decker whodunit.
As in Original Sin (1995) and A Certain Justice (1997), James’s achievement is not to pin down individual guilt, but to show the place of crime and guilt and sin in a whole culture.