P.D. James; (Shedunit)
Dublin — "Detection requires a patient persistence which amounts to obstinacy." Over the weeks it was to become my motto, firming my resolve, steadying its strategy. It was, after all, the sort of situational irony its author -- my quarry -- would appreciate: P. D. James, the great detective novelist, was being hounded like a fugitive. When I finally caught up with her in Dublin, she didn't throw up her hands in surrender, but, rather, extended them in warm greeting, flashing a smile that implied part of the fun of interviewing her was findingm her.
The reason for this unbridled zeal, a targeted enthusiasm that ricocheted from New York to London to Dublin, will be self-evident to any James fan. Quite simply, P. D. James is thought by many to be the finest suspense writer working today in the grand tradition of English Whodunit, the genre pioneered by Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. While lauded as their unchallenged successor, James, critics and fans concur, has significantly amplified the scope of mystery writing, purging it of affectations -- the eccentricities of mores and manners cultivated by upper-class life. Shattering class code, particularly its sanctioned snobbery, James has brought the suspense thriller back into the right hands: the murderer's and ours.
James is the author of seven crime novels and the recipient of two Britain's Silver Dagger Awards. Her novels are hailed for their rich complexity of plot and their consummate craftsmanship: notably, the grasp and dexterity of scientific and social detail. Unlike many suspense novels, though, hers are infused with a deep humanity, a sharp interest in the intricacies of human behavior and the society that breeds them. Her abiding philosophic interest in the vagaries of human motivation -- ambition, power, and survival -- is never sacrificed to the narrative cleverness for which her work is famous.
James, it has often been noted, is a novelist who opts to write in a suspense genre. Like good novels, her mysteries operate on several levels of interpretation. But the remark also pertains to the caliber of the writing itself. Investing each novel is James's crisp prose style: the tart wit; the testy, muscular dialogue; and, above all, the lively if ironic eye for social observation that recalls her literary mentor, Jane Austen.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in her first "traditional" novel, "Innocent Blood," published last year to enormous critical acclaim. Currently being made into a film with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, this taut human thriller chronicles an 18-year-old girl's search to learn the identity of her real parents. "Innocent Blood," a serious meditation on the nature and meaning of identity itself, marks a culmination of James's previous themes: the limits and reaches of ambition; the perils of intellect unallied to the heart; the danger of the unexamined life. As in all her novels, James's true victims aren't death's but life's -- lives pocked by failure, misplaced ambition, selfishness. Here, as always, the real mystery is the human heart itself.
In person, P. D. James (Mrs. Phyllis White in nonliterary life) is a woman of uncommon warmth and modesty. As we sat talking in my hotel, the windows opened onto the echoing greenery of St. Stephen's Park, I couldn't help thinking that this petite woman -- the picture of bright innocence in her Liberty print dress -- was responsible for some of the most spectacularly lethal crimes in suspense history. And, of course, their ingenious solutions.
Like her female detective, Cordelia Gray, James is graced with a spry, exacting intelligence.Indeed, it's the force and fabric of the novels themselves. Eschewing electronic sleuthing, James arms her detectives with the most lethal weapon of all: unerring deductive powers. While aided by forensic science, her sleuths rely mostly on the elegant subtleties of mind for clues. Often they're literary in origin. In "The Black Tower," for instance, Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, James's most famous creation, deduces foul play from the fact that the victim was reading one of Trollope's unwieldy novels without a bookmark. Dalgliesh, himself a published poet, invariably scans bookshelves for clues to character. (In a classic P. D. Jamesian touch, Dalgliesh finds a volume of his own verse orphaned on a victim's shelf.)
If P. D. James possesses the inner resiliencey of her female characters it's because, like them, her life has been pitted with personal misfortune which she's met with clear-eyed courage. While she always knew "with great certainty" that she wanted to be a writer, circumstances thwarted that ambition for quite some time.
James, the eldest of three children and the daughter of an Inland Revenue civil servant, grew up in Cambridge. Because of the depression of the 1930s and the chronic unemployment of the prewar years, James left school at 17, forfeiting a university education. Marrying young, she moved to London, a city soon menaced by enemy attack. At the end of the war, James's husband, a doctor, returned home mentally incapacitated, and the burden of support for their two daughters thus fell on her.
In 1949, having passed qualifying examinations, she took an administrative job with the Hospital Service where for 19 years she specialized in mental health care. In 1968 the Home Office recruited James as a senior civil servant, assigning her first to the police department and later to the criminal policy department where she oversaw juvenile legislation. What she couldn't foresee at the start of her civil service career (from which she has officially just retired), was that it would supply her with the makings for a second career. The forensic labs, the criminal courts, the hospitals and their administrations would be drawn upon again and again as milieu and material for her suspense novels.
It was to take James some 10 years, though, to transform the unexpected responsibility of family support into a personal advantage. In her late 30s she was seized by panic at not writing. "I reliazed that if I didn't at least try,m " she recalls, "I'd be confessing to failure in one vitally important aspect of my life. It was simply no good thinking that I was tired and there were other responsibilities. I had to manage somehow."
And manage she did. Getting up at 6 a.m., she wrote from 7 to 9 before dashing off to her office. In the tradition of Trollope and other writing civil servants, James produced a steady stream of books, the first, "Cover Her Face," published in 1962. Soon thereafter she garnered the epithet "Queen of Suspense" and its inevitable tag line, "the new Agatha Christie," a comparison that makes her wince "just a bit," she says, wincing quite a lot.
In a curious twist of a whodunit, James's literary success was kept a personal secret. Still dependent on her civil service income, she never told colleagues that she'd master- minded Adam Dalgliesh.
"You see, to them I was just Mrs. White," she declares. "Often I'd be sitting next to someone who hadn't a clue that I'd written the very book he was reading.It's an unusual form of privacy." In time, the news leaked out. Did people behave any differently around her? "A bit cautious, perhaps. I guess they worried about turning up murdered in a future novel, although quoted is far worse," she smiles ruefully.
With characteristic modesty, James apologizes for being "a late starter," but adds that she's a firm believer in right timing in writing. "Looking back on my own career, I don't think I could have begun much earlier. In a strange way, those difficult years focused my real ambition. Moreover, my administrative work proved a decided advantage when I did sit down and write. The novels are far the better for that firsthand knowledge. If you're patient and resourceful, no experience is ever lost. It all goes for something.
"'Innocent Blood' is a perfect example. While I was working on sections of the 1975 Children's Act, which facilitated access to birth records, I suddenly remembered a murder trial 25 years earlier which involved a child born to someone sentenced to die. I wondered how and what that child would learn about his identity. To write that I needed the professional insights and emotional depths that only come with time."
James likens the process of mystery writing to that of solving a crime. "It's as if my imagination has stumbled upon a crime and writing a book is my only way of solving it. Often all I know is who's been killed without necessarily knowing why or by whom. So, unlike the traditional novelist, I start at the conclusion and work backward, piecing clues together, spinning them into a plot. By the time I start writing Page 1, Paragraph 1, I've already spent a year figuring out the following 299 pages."
Are all those murders her own inventions?
"I'm afraid they are," she confesses as if in disbelief. "I seem to have thought them all up by myself.
"My favorite part of mystery writing, though, is thinking up all the narrative sophistications -- the false clues, the counterplots, the intriguing disclosures."
Sometimes, James admits, she's a bit too clever for her own good. "To my horror, I realize I've stranded a character in the right place at the wrong time. That means shifting a very delicately balanced plot without it looking contrived." Indeed, listening to James detail her calculus of crime, one is reminded of a crossword puzzle that's being simultaneously solved and invented.
"I'm a classicist, really," she explains. "I like the formal constraints of suspense writing, having to perform creatively within a rigid pattern. I like that mental discipline."
That discipline, as James fans know well, has resulted in some of the most finely crafted mysteries today. Within their cyrstalline web, James nets a welter of characters, the most inconsequential of whom are lavished with lines like: "Her clothes were beautifully made but so dateless that they were never actually in fashion." Or, in dialogue, "'Oh, Gabriel has a personality like a hexagon. People only need touch one side for the illusion of closeness.'"
The depth and dimensionality of James's characters, in particular her detectives, is where she most parts company with the Sayers/Christie tradition. "I wanted to write a realistic fiction," she says. "That meant not saddling yourself with an eccentric like [Christie's] Hercule Poirot.I wanted a professional rather than a gifted amateur, as amateurs simply don't keep stumbling over bodies." Instead of a tattered- tweed bumbler, James invented the lank and laconic Adam Dalgliesh. Like her other sleuth, 22-year-old Cordelia Gray, Dalgliesh is capable, quick-eyed, and possesses an unobtrusive professionalism. Neither sleuth inflicts a murder scene with inquisition, but, rather like a good reporter, gets people to say more than they intended.
James invents her detectives with considerable emotional complexity. In middle-aged widower Dalgliesh we have a fiercely unsentimental policeman who writes poetry. (When pressed, James says he writes like Robert Graves.) Dalgliesh, she notes, is drawn to two occupations which "satisfy his obvious need for noninvolvement but make him guilty about being able to enter peoples' lives without emotional license." James exploits this tension, skillfully counterpointing Dalgliesh's guilty disinterest with the spurious sentiments, the dangerous liberalism of the institutions she writes about.
At her mildest, P. D. James is a social satirist lampooning the trendiness of modern professional life -- the sociologist who can actually write good English, the magistrate burdened by a self-imposed sentence of altruism. But at her most trenchant, James delivers blistering insights into the sterility of modern institutional life, the people who have been victimized by it. The truly macabre in James's novels is not murder but life slowly killed by human neglect.
All her novels, she admits, are studies of moral responsibility: of man taking care of man; of man assuming responsibility for himself. It's no coincidence that many of James's characters are moral if not literal orphans forced to invent a code of behavior, a sense of place and family that life has denied them. "What interest me is how people earn their identity," she says. "Even the murderers. I'd never write about a total psychotic, for example. I'm only interested in people who fully understand the implications of their actions."
The issue of moral responsibility is explored most deeply in "Innocent Blood, " a novel James describes as one about "unselfing, about grace really." In the character of Phillipa Palfrey, a sharp-eyed, quick- tongued 18-year-old, James investigates the process of someone learning to love. James notes: "Phillipa had all the graces in life but grace of the heart. I wanted to show the difficult process from intellect to the intelligent heart.Of learning to ask the right questions with humility."
Asking the right questions in "Innocent Blood" earned P.D. James not only literary success but financial security as well. Selling the screen rights allowed her to move to Dublin her she plans to write full time. At the time of our interview, James had just begun a new Cordelia Gray novel. She's the only one of my characters who I wonder how she's doing. Now I'm finding out," she says.
Do women, as has often been said, make better detectives? "I tend to think they do. Orwell once wrote that murder should only result out of strong emotion , and I think women are more interested in emotion, more capable of understanding its subtleties. We're also very keen observers. We notice the minutiae of social and domestic detail. And the real point of good mystery writing is focused observation, not missing a detail, not a single trick."
A crime P.D. James has never been guilty of committing.