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The Guardian Paperback Writer Column

Why Detection?
by P. D. James

My storytelling began very early, certainly well before I was ten. We lived then in Ludlow on the Welsh borders and my younger sister, brother and I slept in one large nursery, a double bed for Monica and myself, and Edward in a single one against the wall. I was expected at night to tell them stories until either I rebelled or they fell asleep. The stories were invariably improbably exciting and mysterious and the animal hero was called, somewhat unoriginally, Percy Pig.

I think I knew that I would be a novelist almost as soon as I was able to read, but for a variety of reasons - including the war, my husband's illness, the need to find and persevere in a safe career which would provide the necessary weekly cheque - I was a late starter. When I did begin my first novel in my mid thirties, classical detective fiction was the natural choice, partly because it was my foremost recreational reading in adolescence and partly because it suited my sceptical and perhaps slightly morbid imagination. But when I began Cover Her Face (a novel which now seems disconcertingly like an early Agatha Christie), I didn't foresee a writing career primarily as a crime novelist. However, as I continued with the genre I became increasingly fascinated with its possibilities, and in particular how one could use what some might see as an outworn form to produce a contemporary novel which would provide excitement and mystery and yet say something true about contemporary men and women under the trauma of a police investigation for murder. The detective story, which is, of course, only one kind of the broad spectrum of crime writing which can stretch from the cosy certainties of Mayhem Parva to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, is admittedly an artificial form. But all fiction is artificial, the selection of the writer's internal compulsions and preoccupations and external experience in a form which he or she hopes will satisfy the reader's expectations while conforming to Henry James's definition of the purpose of a novel: 'To help the human heart to know itself'.

The technical problems of a detective story are to me fascinating: how to balance setting, characterisation and plot so that all three are interrelated and contribute to the whole; how to create a detective, whether amateur or professional, who will remain a credible human being, operating in a highly technological age, one who is both a successful detective and an agent of human justice and who is yet aware of the moral ambiguities both of his job and of the organisation in which he operates. But perhaps the greatest problem, and one which Dorothy L. Sayers thought prevented the detective story from being regarded as literature, is to explore the compulsions and complexities of the murderer's mind without revealing until the final chapter that he or she is indeed the murderer.

E. M. Forster has written: 'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.' To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

Setting, important in any work of fiction, is particularly so in a detective story. It establishes atmosphere, influences plot and character and enhances the horror of murder, sometimes by contrast between the beauty and outward peace of the scene and the turbulence of human emotions. For me the novel invariably begins with the setting and this has been so since I wrote Cover Her Face. After the setting come the characters, and only then do I give thought to murderous intentions, suspects and alibis, and the mechanics of the plot. Motive is particularly difficult. In the so-called Golden Age, readers could believe that the victim was murdered because he had discovered that the killer was enjoying sexual liaisons with someone other than his wife. Today people who have exciting sexual lives frequently confide them to tabloid newspapers in highly lucrative deals. But jealousy and hatred, and the love of, or need for, money, are still enduring motives and so is the urge to protect or save someone greatly loved. An experienced senior detective told Adam Dalgliesh when Adam was new to the CID, that all the motives for murder came under the letter L: love, lust, lucre and loathing. He added: 'They'll tell you, laddie, that the most dangerous emotion is hatred. Don't believe them. The most dangerous emotion is love.'

© P. D. James, 2004
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