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Frequently Asked Questions for P.D. James

I receive a very large number of letters enquiring about my work and I hope the following will answer most questions. I apologise to correspondents for not sending a personal reply to their enquiries, but it is proving impossible to continue to do this and have time for my writing.

--P.D. James

Choose a question below or scroll down to read the complete list of answers:

  1. How did you begin writing?
  2. Why did you choose crime?
  3. What is the difference between the detective story and the crime novel?
  4. How do you get your first idea?
  5. What other writers have influenced you?
  6. Why do women make such good crime novelists?
  7. What is your method of working?
  8. How did you create your hero/detective Adam Dalgliesh?
  9. How has the detective story changed since the last war?
  10. Why are detective stories so popular?

 
 
 
1. How did you begin writing?

I knew from very early childhood that I wanted to be a novelist but for a number of reasons I did not begin writing my first novel, Cover Her Face, until I was in my late thirties. It was accepted by the first publisher to whom it was sent and was published in 1962.

2. Why did you choose crime?

I began with a detective story because:

  • I very much enjoyed reading them in my adolescence
  • I thought that I might be able to write one successfully in which case, as a popular genre, it would stand a good chance of acceptance by a publisher
  • I am fascinated by construction in a novel and the detective story has to be well-constructed
  • I did not wish to use the more traumatic events of my own life in an autobiographical first novel and saw the writing of a detective story as a valuable apprenticeship.
After I had progressed in my craft I came to believe that it is possible to write within the conventions of a classical detective story and still be regarded as a serious novelist and say something true about men and women and the society in which they live.

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3. What is the difference between the detective story and the crime novel?

I see the detective story as a subspecies of the crime novel. The crime novel can include a remarkable variety of works from the cosy certainties of Agatha Christie, through Anthony Trollope and Graham Greene, to the great Russians. The detective story may be considered more limited in scope and potential. The reader can expect to find a central mysterious death, a closed circle of suspects each with credible motive, means and opportunity for the crime, a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it, and a solution at the end of the book which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues presented by the writer with deceptive cunning but essential fairness. What interests me is the extraordinary variety of talents which this so-called formula is able to accommodate.

4. How do you get your first idea?

Usually my creative imagination is sparked off by the setting rather than by the method of murder or by any of the characters. I have a strong reaction to place and may visit a lonely stretch of coast, a sinister old house or a community of people and feel strongly that I wish to set a novel there. For example, The Black Tower began with a visit to the Purbeck coast of Dorset and A Taste for Death originated in a visit to an Oxford church near the canal. After the setting come the characters, and then the actual murder and the clues.

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5. What other writers have influenced you?

I can detect in my work the influence of four very different writers: Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

6. Why do women make such good crime novelists?

I am not sure whether women would still be pre-eminent if we examined the whole spectrum of crime writing, but they certainly do excel in the traditional classical detective story. This may be because women have an eye for detail and clue-making demands attention to the minutiae of everyday living. Women, too, are interested in emotions and motives rather than in fast action and weaponry. It may be that women find the formal construction of the detective story psychologically supportive, so that we are able to deal within this structure with violent events which we might not so confidently tackle in the so-called straight novel.

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7. What is your method of working?

First comes the idea which, as I have said, usually arises from the setting. There is then a period of plotting and planning which may take many months, sometimes as long as the actual writing. During this period I am never without a notebook. When the book is plotted I begin writing, but seldom at the beginning of the novel. It is rather as if I am making a film. I write the sequences out of order and then put the book together at the end. I write by hand and then dictate to my secretary who types it into the computer.

8. How did you create your hero/detective Adam Dalgliesh?

Adam Dalgliesh is not drawn from any person I know but does, I suppose, represent the qualities I most admire in a man, i.e. sensitivity, courage and intelligence. I began with a professional detective attached to New Scotland Yard because I was setting out to write what I hoped would be a fairly realistic detective story and thought that this required a professional detective. Later I created Cordelia Gray, my private eye.

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9. How has the detective story changed since the last war?

The detective story is far closer to the straight novel than were the rather cosy mysteries of the 1930s when setting, characterisation and, sometimes, psychological truth were all sacrificed to ingenuity of plot. The modern mystery (as the Americans call it) is often more violent, more sexually explicit, less confident in its affirmation of law and order and far more concerned with character and motive than with the ingenuity of the murder itself.

10. Why are detective stories so popular?

The critics have forecast the death of the classical detective story at every decade, but the form remains remarkably resilient. There are the attractions of a strong plot, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. There is the challenge of a puzzle for those who like following clues. The detective story, like other forms of crime novel, provides vicarious excitement and danger. But there are other interesting psychological reasons. The classical detective story is rather like the modern morality play. It can provide catharsis, a means by which both writer and reader exorcise irrational feelings of anxiety or guilt. The basic moral premise, the sanctity of life, is also an attraction as is the solution of the plot at the end of the book. The classical detective story affirms our belief that we live in a rational and generally benevolent universe.

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If you have a question for the author that she hasn't answered here, please send it by e-mail to knopfwebmaster@randomhouse.com, or by regular mail to:

P.D. James
c/o Random House Inc.
1745 Broadway
Author Mail, 21
New York, NY 10011

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