British Mystery Writer P.D. James Discusses Her Craft
THE following excerpts are from a talk about detective mystery writing given by British author P.D. James at the American Booksellers Association convention this past June. James's latest book, ``Devices and Desires,'' published by Alfred A. Knopf, is due out in February.
I think of the detective story as a kind of sub-genre of the crime novel. And what we expect in the detective story is in one sense a formula - because we expect a central mysterious death, a closed circuit of suspects, a detective either amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve the crime, and by the end of the book: a solution, which you, the reader, should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the book with essential fairness but deceptive cunning.
So there is, in a sense, as I've said a formula, and one of the criticisms of the detective stories so often heard is that this is formula writing. Well, alas, it often can be. But what fascinates me about this genre is the extraordinary variety of books and talents which this so-called formula is able to accommodate, and how many writers find the conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination.
With the people, it's very curious. I don't think any writer can ever explain how we invent characters. It's impossible really to describe. But it often seems to me that the people and the plot, everything about them, exists in some limbo of my imagination. And what I'm doing is quietly and with humility waiting for them to get in touch with me so that I can get their story down in black and white on paper.
So, just to conclude: Why I wonder do we continue to read the classical detective story? And why is there such a resurgence of interest at present? I think there are the obvious reasons: We do get a story, it does have a beginning and a middle ... then something happens. I think one of the most depressing things about modern fiction is this artificial dichotomy between novels which are very highly regarded by the critics and win prestigious prizes, but which most of us find extremely dull and difficult to plow through, and novels which tell us a good story and which we enjoy. I'm not talking about the awful ones, I'm talking about the good ones which still tell a story....
Then there's the solution of the puzzle. And I think in ages of anxiety - and certainly the modern age is an age of anxiety - when sometimes we feel that no matter how much money, how much good will, how many resources we've poured into some of our problems, whether they are problems of inner cities, problems of race, international problems, but if they seem beyond our ability to solve - I think that it's very comforting and reassuring for our entertainment to have a novel which has a mystery at the heart of it; which at the end is solved - not by supernatural means, or good luck, but by human beings, by human courage, human perseverance, and human intelligence. The detective story is a small affirmation of our belief that we live in a generally benevolent and rational universe and the small celebration, I think, of order and reason, in our increasingly disorderly world.