P. D. James dishes on detective fiction

The famous novelist has some strong opinions about the state of her craft

Mention of iconic British mystery writers tends to bring to mind the names of long-dead women—Agatha Christie (naturally), Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham prime among them—and one living one. Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park in the County of Suffolk—more commonly (in every sense) known as P.D. James, is 89 now. In her by-no-means-finished writing career of 47 years, James has so far produced 21 books, most of them bestsellers as well as critically acclaimed, garnered tributes ranging from her life peerage to seven honorary doctorates and even become the subject of a French Ph.D. thesis, Perversion et perversité dans les romans à énigme de P. D. James.

In her newest book, Talking About Detective Fiction, she examines the enduring human appetite for mystery and murder and how some of its most prominent fictional purveyors (including herself) have gone about satisfying it. When James writes about her craft, she commands attention, both for her accomplishments and as a direct link to the so-called golden age of Christie and the other Queens of Crime. After all, she was there—a Depression-era teenager who would save her pennies to buy the latest Sayers novel.

While James cannot recall a time when she didn’t want to be a writer, she turned to the task with determination only in her mid-30s, when she felt she had little choice. James had met her husband, Connor White, a medical student, while she was working at a theatre in Cambridge. He came back from the Second World War diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent years in psychiatric hospitals before his death in 1964. Connor was never unhappy there, James once dryly commented, having been well prepared by his education at a minor public school and in the army. “For some time,” she recalled, “he worked in the library but also captained the soccer team. I don’t know whether any games were played away, but those on home ground had their moments of eccentricity. Connor was not pleased when, during one game, the goalkeeper began hearing his voices and stood immobile, eyes raised to heaven, while the ball whizzed past him into goal.”

However devastating the emotional toll of Connor’s disease, the practical impact lay in James’s pressing need to support their two young daughters. She studied hospital administration, and embarked on a successful 30-year career in the British bureaucracy, first in health sciences and later in the criminal justice system. And she wrote. Famously private, not to say classically stiff-upper-lipped, James, as she says in an interview with Maclean’s, “didn’t want to write autobiographical fiction, not about the war or my husband’s illness.” Besides, she had been fascinated since adolescence with the question of how to structure a novel, what balance of character, setting and plot a writer should strike, and—always practical—she wanted to be published. Detective fiction, where structure is paramount and sales (potentially) high, and no one demands Freudian self-revelation, was a natural choice. James’s main protagonist, New Scotland Yard Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh, named after her English teacher at Cambridge High School for Girls, made the first of his 14 appearances in Cover Her Face (1962).

He was a contemporary descendant of the golden age of detectives, a professional doing a disagreeable job, not an amateur dilettante. He was sensitive but not sentimental—besides murder itself there doesn’t seem to be anything James despises more than soppy sentimentality—and given added gravitas by the fact he was a widower who had lost both wife and child in childbirth. That freed James from the need to craft scenes of domestic tranquillity, which, she says, she would have found dull. (And painful too, perhaps, at that point in her life.) Dalgliesh’s tragic past also considerably upped his appeal to women readers. But as attractive and modern as he is, Dalgliesh just squeaked into life under the feminist revolution wire.

“Certainly, I would have created a woman detective were I starting now,” James says. “Back then women police looked after female prisoners and, as I recall, worked with children; they certainly weren’t detectives.” Even when, in the flush of ’70s feminism, James wrote the first of her two novels featuring private investigator Cordelia Gray in 1972, the title embodied what male officers thought of a female detective, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James has never considered it her business to overtly critique society in any way—“No, my job is to combine the best novel I can write with a satisfying and satisfactorily solved mystery story”—but the struggles of working women, especially in male-dominated fields (like the British police and civil service), have always surfaced in her books.

As women began to rise in the police hierarchy, eventually to the highest rank (“I never thought I’d live to see a woman chief constable, but I have!”), Dalgliesh acquired a female junior associate, Kate Miskin, whose private life occasionally affects storylines. In one novel, “social services expected her to look after her aged parents in a way they never would have asked of a male police officer,” James notes. The novelist also admires Chicago writer Sara Paretsky, “the most remarkable of the moderns,” who James believes “consciously” uses detective fiction for social criticism in her novels of V.I. Warshawski, “a courageous, sexually liberated female investigator.”

Paretsky is almost unique in inspiring a quasi-political respect in James. Her other favourites among contemporary crime writers impress her with their superbly realized settings. Historian C.J. Sansom’s series about hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake—highly intelligent, liberal-minded and (no surprise) unsentimental—set in the reign of Henry VIII, pleases her with its pinpoint accuracy. The BBC is soon to film the first Shardlake novel, with the lawyer played by Kenneth Branagh, who is starting to make a habit of this sort of thing, having recently depicted Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in the TV adaptation of Henning Mankell’s hugely popular series.

Baroness James is normally a model of courtesy—at one point in the interview she expressed regret age would prevent her usual “enjoyable” visit to Canada—but mention of Wallander brings out her more waspish side. She deplores “the modern tendency to stereotype senior detectives as solitary, divorced, hard-drinking, psychologically flawed and disillusioned. And they all have trouble with their children! If someone created a happily married detective who enjoys his work and spends his free hours playing the cello, I doubt readers would find him credible, but he would certainly be an original.” (Bursts of sentimentality from Dorothy Sayers’s hero Lord Peter Wimsey invoke the same reaction, much as James admires Sayers: when Wimsey is reduced to tears on the execution day of a murderer he was instrumental in convicting, James writes that “some readers”—i.e., P.D. James—“may feel he should have confined himself to collecting first editions” if he found the results of his work so troubling.)

James is also a huge fan of Ian Rankin, creator of Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus, for much the same quality she admires in Sansom. “You get a much better idea of what it means to be a police officer in Edinburgh, and of Edinburgh itself, from a Rebus story than from any official report,” says James, who has read (and written) more than a few bureaucratic memoranda in her life.

Admirable too is Rankin’s “temerity” in allowing Rebus to retire, a boldness not shared by most detective serial writers. Most tend to leave their creations fixed near the age first assigned to them. That includes James: Dalgliesh, a senior detective in 1962, must be almost as old as his creator herself, but he remains as subtle, ingenious and energetic as she does. Far from taking it easy in the nursing home, Dalgliesh actually got married in 2008 after his last case, The Private Patient. Still, James notes shrewdly, Rankin did not follow in the irrevocable footsteps of Nicolas Freeling, who killed off his creation, Dutch detective Piet van der Valk. “Rebus could come back, he’s only retired.”

One reason James admires masters of setting is that, for all her skill in characterization and plot, an acute sense of place may be her finest gift too. It’s certainly the trigger that launches all her novels. “I have a very strong response to what I feel is the spirit of a place,” she says. “When I come upon the right setting I feel immediately, ‘This is where it all happened.’ ” In Talking About Detective Fiction she describes how she stood on a deserted shingle beach in East Anglia, listening to the wind and sea, and thinking it would have looked and felt much the same centuries ago. Then, “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,” 1988’s Devices and Desires. That kind of setting, a place of claustrophobic isolation where jealousy and rivalry among characters eventually boils over—is standard in James’s work, and includes a theological college (Death in Holy Orders), an exclusive plastic surgery clinic (The Private Patient), and a forensics lab (Death of an Expert Witness).

James, among the most novelistic practitioners ever of her craft, feels no particular need to defend its value. The claim that detective fiction’s formulaic requirements—for a mystery, a circle of suspects, a solution—prevent it from real literary achievement makes her laugh. It equates, in her opinion, to saying a sonnet’s technical demands mean Shakespeare’s poetry, by definition, cannot be art. “And how many writers continue to find those restrictions actually liberating?” she asks in reference to the great flood of worldwide crime writing she sees today. The detective story classically restores order from chaos, setting things right again, or as right as they can be in the wake of murder, a “unique” crime that damages everyone it touches.

That’s why detective fiction is popular, James argues, and why its popularity and production are increasing in an era when most Britons “feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life.” If, as seems likely to James, “detective fiction flourishes best in the most difficult of times,” as it did in the grim years between the wars, when people want to feel that, however intractable our problems, human ingenuity and courage can solve them, “we may well be at the beginning of a new golden age.”

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