Britain's Queen of Whodunit Novels Commits a 'Class' Act

ACTUAL murder has yet to be committed - but the knives are out, and a detective may soon be on the way.

Britain's crime writers, usually happy to scribble away out of the public's eye, are engaging in a bitter battle in the news media.

The falling-out began when the author P.D. James (otherwise known as Baroness James of Holland Park) gave a radio interview suggesting that only the British middle class understands the moral dimension of crime.

''In the pits of the worst-possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm, and murder is commonplace, you don't get moral choice, you don't get contrasts between good and evil,'' proclaimed Lady James, doyenne of the classic crime novel and best-selling creator of the suave police investigator Adam Dalgleish.

Her remarks produced what one newspaper called ''a baffling case of detective friction.''

Mark Timlin, a whodunit writer whose detective hero is a drug-taking university dropout who investigates cases in a working-class area of London, attacked the apparent snobbery. ''Everybody makes moral choices every time they get up,'' he retorted.

''British crime writing is tedious,'' Mr. Timlin says. ''All these heroes who are middle-aged, middle-class men with women problems are boring.''

For Timlin, inner-city locations are far preferable to the sleepy rural settings that often feature in James's books and in Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries.

If it had not been for another crime writer's insomnia, James might have gotten away with her comment. But Chaz Brenchley, one of nearly 400 members of Britain's Crime Writers' Association (CWA), heard it at 2 a.m. on a British Broadcasting Company shortwave radio program intended for overseas audiences.

He obtained a copy of the tape and complained in the pages of Red Herrings, the CWA's monthly newsletter.

James, winner of the association's coveted Diamond Dagger award for her lifetime contribution to crime writing, replied: ''This must be the first time in the history of the CWA that a member has gone to the trouble of obtaining a copy of a tape for the sole purpose of checking on the political correctness of another member's views.''

CWA members include John Le Carre, Ruth Rendell, and Colin Dexter. The organization was founded in 1953 by John Creasey with the aim of promoting crime fiction.

It has since gained many new and younger members who, like Timlin, find the elegant plots and intellectual calisthenics of James's novels abhorrent.

With the quarrel out in the open, and James at the center of it, the controversy began to look like yet another case of the British tendency to reduce everything to matters of social class. Says former CWA chairman Robert Richardson: ''There are two camps - the traditional school and the hard-boiled Young Turks.''

James, he suggests, belongs to the first group, whereas Mr. Brenchley is ''on the side of those who believe the middle classes would fail to recognize a moral choice if it bit them on the leg.''

Maxim Jacubowski, proprietor of a London crime-book shop called Murder One, agrees. ''The row reflects the division between the younger, realistic writers and the Old Guard,'' he says.

Peter Walker, the current CWA chairman, says James is reviewing her membership. ''The association has changed over the years, with many new and younger writers joining. If P.D. James were a new writer now, she might well not join.''

Although Brenchley, Timlin, and other Young Turks dismiss James, the Queen of Crime is not short of defenders. Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse novels, says: ''She is a fine writer. It is a jolly sight more interesting to have a clever cop or a clever criminal.''

Of inner-city crime, he says, ''I've killed 69 people in [middle-class] Oxford so far, and I intend to carry on.''

Columnist Keith Waterhouse sides with James, but not because he agrees that only the middle classes understand moral choice.

''Morality does not come into it,'' he wrote in London's Daily Mail. ''The educated middle class make the best murderers because in the general run of things they do not commit murder.''

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