P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction

 The popular mystery novelist, P.D. James, is 90 this year. The majority of her books, filmed and seen widely on television, feature detective Adam Dalgliesh. Now her 21st book is out: Talking About Detective Fiction.

This 200-page nonfiction volume explores some of the most intriguing aspects of the mystery genre. James places particular focus on the genre's Golden Age, roughly the period between the World Wars, both in the U.K. and the U.S. James discusses well known authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, offering personal insights about their writing styles, their best books, their series detectives, and the era in which they wrote.

For modern mystery fans, this book may invite catching up on some overlooked classics. Even for those, like myself, who typically watch the televised versions rather than read the books, there is much to be learned and enjoyed here. P.D. James is a fluid writer, frank and opinionated, with a lengthy and broad knowledge of the field.

She also shares the usual details readers (and other writers) are so curious about, such as how she writes. For instance, she likes to write by hand, then dictates each chapter to her secretary of 33 years, who enters it into a computer. She revises section by section as they're printed out.


James discusses why closed settings work so well in detective fiction, and why English villages are especially popular. She details how she got the initial impetus for Devices and Desires: she was standing on a deserted shingle beach while exploring East Anglia. The combination of the wooden boats, brown nets, "the sullen and dangerous North Sea," had her imagining standing in that place hundreds of years ago. "Then," she adds, "turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel." She adds:

My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.... This moment of initial inspiration is always one of great excitement. I know that, however long the writing may take, I shall eventually have a novel. The idea takes possession of my mind and gradually over the months the book takes shape, the characters appear and become increasingly real to me, I know who will be murdered and where, when, how, why and by whom.


James is commonly asked whether she derives her characters from real life. Though she denies taking members of her family, friends or colleagues and, with a few changes, putting them in her books, she admits she does take her characters from real life.

From where else can I take them? But the person I look to most is myself for experience endured or rejoiced on over nearly ninety years of living in this turbulent world. If I need to write about a character afflicted with such shyness that every new job, every encounter, becomes a torment, I am blessed not to suffer such misery. But I know from the embarrassments and uncertainties of adolescence what such shyness can feel like and it is my job to relive it and find the words to express it.


You might think that mysteries, having to be plotted so carefully, might tap less deeply into the well of the subconscious. Yet, according to James, that mysterious reservoir, what some call flow, is very much where stories and characters hang out waiting to be discovered. She writes:

It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation, not of creation.

  • For the fun of it, listen to her voice as she talks with BBC director general Mark Thompson here.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Susan K. Perry

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