Murder, she wrote

Legendary author P.D. James discusses the art of the crime novel

Legendary author P.D. James discusses the art of the crime novel

Crime writer P.D. James, who at 88 has just published her 18th novel, The Private Patient. ((Random House Canada) )
To borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, one of P.D. James’s favourite authors, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single sleuth in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And so in James’s new work, The Private Patient, it finally comes to pass that the British novelist’s most famous creation, the sensitive and brooding poet-policeman Commander Adam Dalgliesh, marries. This ends his 45-year stretch as the mystery world’s most eligible bachelor.

Over the phone from her home in London, James says this "valedictory tone" is, to a degree, deliberate. The 88-year-old author finished The Private Patient — her 18th novel — while recuperating from heart failure following hip replacement surgery. She even drew on some details from her own convalescence for the novel, which is set at a posh private cosmetic surgery clinic. She says she intends to keep writing as long as she can, but it seems typical of James — whose novels are as psychologically complex as they are precisely plotted — to want to leave the affairs of her characters in order. In a James novel, ethical and moral questions abound, and killers have even eluded justice — but there are never any loose ends.

(Random House Canada)
During James's writing career, which didn’t begin until she was in her 40s, the best-selling author has brought a literary, almost poetic sensibility to the mystery genre. (Her characters are endearingly, if a little unbelievably, well-versed in the classics.) She has received a title (Baroness James of Holland Park) and has been named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Her work has been adapted for television, and a film version of her dystopian novel Children of Men earned three Oscar nominations.

Although modest about her achievements ("I do forget sometimes that I’m now part of the establishment"), James admits that success "gives one an assurance that’s very useful; it’s dishonest to pretend that it’s not much more agreeable to be successful than not. And success is good for one’s character as long as you don’t get conceited."

James spoke to CBCNews.ca about modern-day motives, real crime versus the imagined kind and the power of love.

Q: What has it been like to have Adam Dalgliesh in your life for so long?

A: When I began, I didn’t know he’d be a serial character, and of course there’s the challenge of having readers suspend their disbelief. He hasn’t aged that much over 40 years and each novel is set in the time of its writing. But I did try to create a character that was someone I’d really like. I gave Dalgliesh the qualities I admire in both men and women: he’s good-looking, highly intelligent, compassionate but not sentimental, and reserved. It was important too that he was a character who could develop. I never wanted to know him too well. I think Agatha Christie got rather fed up with Hercule Poirot at the end, because she had made him both too old and just too bizarre.

Q: You first began writing mystery novels in the 1960s, before the sexual revolution and well before the internet and cellphones. Is it very different to write a mystery novel now than it was 40 years ago?

A: Certainly in the old days, it was entirely possible to believe that character A would murder character B because B had discovered something about A’s sex life. Nowadays, people write about their sex lives in newspapers and no one seems at all bothered by it. So a sex scandal has ceased to be a credible reason for murder.

But other motives are timeless. I think that the lust for money is powerful, as is the wish to help someone you greatly love. Revenge is always a strong motive. I think that’s the one most universally understood. There’s a desire we all have for some kind of justice in the world, and that’s perhaps the strongest motive.

And of course, scientific changes have affected all serious writers of mystery novels. DNA evidence, for example, has revolutionized the investigation of murder. If you had a dead body with some blood or skin from their attacker under their nails and you had six suspects, well, it wouldn’t take very long at all to solve the mystery, would it?

Martin Shaw plays Adam Dalgliesh in several BBC adaptations of P.D. James's books. ((BBC))
Q: By creating an inner life for killers and the detectives who solve their crimes, have you become desensitized to real crime and murder?


A: There’s such a chasm between the imagined world, no matter how horrific, and the real one. A few years ago, when I was researching a novel and I visited a forensics laboratory, they showed me a new camera that could detect bloodstains on wallpaper. There was a file from a particular crime where this camera was used and without thinking, I leafed through the pages and came across a photo of the two victims. They were a young couple who had just bought a flat and were setting up a life together, and here they were, dragged out of bed by an intruder and left naked on the floor, stabbed to death. It was a great shock to see that image. Reality, the reality of crime and war and suffering, has always affected me in a way that fiction can’t.

Q: I think that might be why mystery novels are so satisfying, because in the end, unlike in the real world, the puzzle is solved, the criminal is identified and justice is done.


A: Exactly. I think at their heart, detective novels are about bringing order out of disorder and that’s tremendously reassuring — probably even more so in an age where it doesn’t seem to matter how many resources we put into our social problems, they seem impossible to fix. In a novel, you’re not going to get divine justice, but human justice, which is always fallible. You’re going to get justice of a kind.

Q: Your victims are often very unlikable and your killers often have, if not a good reason, then at least an understandable one for wanting someone dead. Do you have compassion for both?


A: Ultimately, my sympathy is always with the victim. I can tell myself intellectually that the murderer was confused, or had terrible temptation, or was mentally ill, and all those things should make me sorry for him, but I still feel most sorry for the victim, even if the victim was a terrible person. Murder is the unique crime, because a killer can’t ever give back what was taken and can’t make reparations. How do you live your life knowing that you’ve taken one?

Q: The Private Patient is a very romantic novel. Alongside the violence and death, there are several happy, adoring couples and families. Tell me why you wanted to explore the theme of love.


A: One of my friends said that [this] novel is about the various kinds of loving: sexual love, maternal love, the love between friends and siblings. Some forms, like obsessive love, can be quite dangerous. I wanted to explore these various kinds of love because while some make for happiness, some make for sorrow, or jealousy, or disappointment. But in the end, love is the greatest power we have.

The Private Patient is published by Random House and is in stores now.

Rachel Giese is a writer and editor based in Toronto.