Death in Holy Orders

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About the Author Excerpt Q&A
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(The following interview was conducted by's Kerry Fried in November, 1997, upon publication of A Certain Justice)

Q: You've spoken before of the rational pleasures to be gained from the mystery--the working out of rights and wrongs--but it strikes me that your work has slightly moved away from the neat resolution. Would you agree with that?

A: Certainly I think it's moved much closer to what we think of as the mainstream novel. I'm still providing a rational and credible mystery--I'm hoping to do so, anyway. But I've become increasingly interested in the other characters connected with the murder. So we have rather less of Adam Dalgliesh, although he's at the heart of the novel, and more emphasis on other people and their relationships.

Q: Your title, A Certain Justice, suggests that justice might be circumscribed--that there might not be utter retribution.

A: Absolutely, yes. This is one way in which the modern detective story differs from those written in the so-called golden age between the wars, where there was always at the end punishment--justice--along with the solution. Now I think we increasingly realize two things: One, that murder is a contaminating crime, and every life that comes in touch with it is altered. So you can't have a cozy idea that there's the murder, there's the solution, and everything's back as it was before. The second thing is, there still has to be a solution. I don't think it would be a credible detective story without one.

Q: Would you say that you make the distinction between theological judgment and justice in this novel?

A: Yes, I think that's true. It's really raising the question of how far we can hope for justice. We do the best we can, and criminal law is like a bridge which we erect with immense care over psychological and social chaos. But we seldom get the whole truth or perfect truth.

Q: I'm curious, have you been following the case of the British au pair who was on trial for infanticide?

A: Oh, yes, very much--the nanny trial. Yes I have, with considerable interest. Indeed, I have. It seems to me that this girl did get a very fair trial. Admittedly, our systems have fundamental differences, but great care was taken that she was very ably defended, though the defense may have made a technical error. Most people would agree that it couldn't have been murder, because I don't see that there was premeditation. I can't believe, even if she were responsible for the baby's death, that she actually intended to kill. Therefore it seems to me that it would be much more likely to be manslaughter rather than murder. But that is assuming, of course, that she's not completely innocent. And I think it's very difficult to make judgments if you haven't heard the whole of the evidence. Whether the verdict is right or not, of course, is a different matter.

Q: You just spoke about the golden age of the mystery with, I think, a few quotation marks around golden age. I was wondering what led you to write mysteries.

A: There were a number of reasons. Firstly, the mystery was my form of entertainment reading, relaxation reading. I very much admired the women writers: Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingha, Josephine Tey. I thought I could probably do it, and if so, a mystery would stand a very good chance of being accepted by a publisher, because it's such a popular form. I didn't want to write an autobiographical first novel. I wanted to get away from war experiences and bombing and my husband's illness after the war--all that sort of thing. But I do love structure, and I'm fascinated by the structure of the detective story. It's not surprising that overwhelmingly my own favorite writer is Jane Austen, who's a mistress of construction. And secondly, I was setting out with rather high ambitions. I didn't imagine I'd make a great deal of money, but I wanted to make a reputation as a good novelist, and I thought this would be a wonderful apprenticeship. As I continued in my craft, I came to believe that I could stay within the conventions and tell the truth as I saw it about men and women, about my characters, and about the society in which we live.

Q: I would assume that you also see your mysteries as moral fables.

A: Well, I don't think I set out to write them as moral fables, but it is interesting. Very often in the end, the book does have a theme, even if I didn't plan for it to have one. And, of course, the mystery itself is a very moral form of writing, because it does affirm the sanctity of the individual life. No matter how unpleasant the victim may be--the victim may indeed be evil--he or she has the right to live life to its last natural moment.

Q: On the other hand, many people in Venetia Aldridge's chambers have much to gain from her murder.

A: Oh, yes. Indeed. There's hardly a death that doesn't advantage someone, when you come to think about it.

Q: Society has changed so much since your first novel was published in the early '60s, but your killers still have motives--they're not psychopaths.

A: I don't think I would ever have a psychopath as the main killer, because my own view of the mystery is that it does require an intelligent and normal individual as the killer. A psychopath will kill just because he fancies killing, and therefore there really is no great challenge to the reader. Without any motive, it becomes a very different kind of novel: a crime novel rather than a detective story. But if I look at my first novel, Cover Her Face, which was very traditional, English-country-house murder, and compare it with A Certain Justice or even with Original Sin, I see a vast difference. I hope it means a vast progression as a novelist, but also a change in the way I'm writing and dealing with the detective story.

Q: Do you still believe that the setting initially impels you?

A: I don't think I'd say that the setting compels me more than character, because character has to be at the very heart of any novel that's worth reading. But it's a question of the first inspiration--and nearly always that is a place. I wanted to set A Certain Justice in the world of the criminal law, partly because I am fascinated with the contrast between the order and the dignity and the traditions of criminal law, particularly in this country, and the appalling crimes with which the lawyers are dealing. The idea that violence would enter right into the chambers of a very distinguished criminal lawyer and strike her down--that really was the inspiration for the book. So it was, again, the setting, and then came the characters. What sort of woman was she going to be, what had made her the sort of woman she was, who would wish her dead?

Q: Your victim, Venetia Aldridge, inspires loathing and envy on the part of many--much of it well founded.

A: I very much enjoyed writing about her. I felt I knew her absolutely, and knew what had made her what she was. That is very important to me--the need to show the shadows which the past casts over the present. I just don't want to show the character as she is today. How did she become like that? What were the roots from which grew this woman with her burning ambition, her intelligence, her ambivalence towards men?

Q: At the book's start, Venetia defends a man charged with brutally murdering his aunt. You're not terribly interested in keeping us guessing about his guilt.

A: No, we have in Garry Ashe a psychopath. We see his background, and we know enough about psychopaths to be sure that they very, very seldom come from loving and stable homes. Nevertheless, the book shows that there are people--and, of course, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin is one of them--who have much the same upbringing. Yet, as Kate says, "Look, he had his chances. He had health, he had looks, he had intelligence."

Q: He was very charismatic in court.

A: But I don't think I would ever want to make someone like that the main killer, because then you don't have the chance to explore the way in which somebody who is normally law-abiding and intelligent--normally good--is driven to cross over the line which separates murderers from the rest of us.

Q: But there is a difference between the novel and real life. You're normally law-abiding and intelligent and good, but you would probably never be driven to murder, would you?

A: No, there is a difference. Of course, murder is a very, very, very uncommon crime in Britain--surprisingly so, considering how interested we are in it--and most of it is domestic. I think 80 percent of the women who are killed are killed by husbands or lovers. And interestingly enough, children under the age of two are more likely to be victims of murder than any other group in the community. We do have some of the most intriguing murders, particularly in the Victorian Age and the Edwardian Age. But by and large, there is this difference between murder in real life and fictional murder.

Q: You collaborated with T. A. Critchley on The Maul and the Pear Tree, an investigation of some brutal killings in early 18th-century London. Was researching that very different?

A: Yes, because it was the only book I've written with another writer. We both worked in the British Home Office, and I happened to be interested in these particular murders, and said that I thought that the man who was blamed was innocent. My collaborator said, "Well, let's see if we can find the papers." And it was, indeed, fascinating to write. A quite extraordinary case.

Q: Do you think one of the reasons that murders of the Victorian and Edwardian eras are more interesting is a matter of, literally, the physical atmosphere of the time?

A: Yes, I think there's a lot in that. And there's the contrast--especially in the women accused of murder--between the respectability of their cluttered drawing rooms and these extraordinary emotions boiling away underneath.

Q: Emotions are definitely boiling away just beneath the surface in A Certain Justice.

A: Oh, yes, that's the great fun--perhaps fun is not quite the word--the excitement, really, of a good mystery. It's all these emotions bubbling away. In fact, George Orwell said that murder, the unique crime, should arise only from strong emotions. And I think that women writers are particularly good in dealing with those strong emotions.

Q: One suspect says that Dalgliesh has a kind of inverted conceit. Do you see that?

A: I don't see it myself, not at all. He's an intensely private person, and I don't think that he cares to compete, in many ways. He's got his poetry, and that's more important to him. It's interesting to describe how other people in the novel see Dalgliesh, but it isn't necessarily as I see him.

Q: Ruth Rendell has said that she keeps the actor who plays Inspector Wexford in her mind's eye while working on her novels. Do you see Roy Marsden, who plays Dalgliesh in the series, as Dalgliesh?

A: Well, he isn't certainly my Dalgliesh, no, but this is Roy Marsden's Dalgliesh, and I think he brings certain virtues to the role--the height, the presence, the very beautiful speaking voice. You do feel this man is a detective, and is a rather quiet, sinister presence of the heart of the story. But, of course, I have my Dalgliesh, and there may be many others who have their own Dalgliesh.

Q: Don't you find that for many of us these characters are a bit too real?

A: Oh, yes! But then that's good. We need to think of the characters that we get fond of as real, don't we? If many of Dickens's characters were not there or suddenly disappeared, something would go out of life. And with Jane Austen's characters as well--we do think of them as real.

Q: Do you identify with Adam Dalgliesh?

A: Oh, yes, I do identify very much with Dalgliesh, but it doesn't mean really that I would accept everything he says, myself. In fact, I sometimes feel a slight resentment of Dalgliesh, because he gets to stay the same age! But if you don't like your hero, and don't give him qualities which you think are important and attractive, you get very fed up with writing about him. You need to like him, but I don't think you need to fall in love with him. He's a very detached man, isn't he? He's basically very compassionate, but he's not sentimental--that's the last thing he is.

Q: You've described him before as having a splinter of ice in his heart.

A: Yes, I think he has.

Q: Are you ever going to melt it?

A: Well, if it ever melts, he's got to do it without my help.

Q: Now how is he going to do that?

A: Well, he can't, of course, can he? No, he can't. That's quite right, he can't! If I started a book saying, "Six months after Dalgliesh's wedding," my readers would be extremely aggrieved! "What? Who's he married?" Especially to somebody they've never heard of before. "Who is this woman? How did he meet her? What do you mean doing this to us? How old is she?"

Q: Then you have to publish a collection of his poetry, of course, as well.

A: Oh, don't fear, for it may come. Indeed it may!