LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The author P.D. James has a definition of detective fiction that is as neatly constructed as one of her mystery novels.
Ms. P.D. JAMES (Author): What we have is a central mysterious crime, which is usually murder. We have a closed circle of suspects, with means, motive and opportunity for the crime. We have a detective who can be amateur or professional who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it. And by the end, we do get a solution.
WERTHEIMER: P.D. James has been writing detective fiction for nearly half a century. Her latest book is about her craft. It's called "Talking About Detective Fiction," and it's a very personal and affectionate look at the art, the evolution and the conventions of the mystery novel.
Take, for example, the central character.
Ms. JAMES: The detective can know nothing which the reader isn't also told. It would be a very, very bad detective story at the end if the reader felt, well, who could possibly have guessed that? What one wants the reader to feel was that that was very clever. I didn't guess it but I should have guessed it. Now I see. I see where I went wrong.
But sometimes I think people, they don't keep their minds very much on the clues. They get too interested in the action and in the characters.
WERTHEIMER: I was wondering about that. Do you think that your definition for the bones of a detective story, do you think that's changed much over the years?
Ms. JAMES: Well, I don't think it's changed much with the detective story, although there are different emphases. The detective story has moved much straighter, closer to the straight novel. And it's much less an entirely just a puzzle and nothing more than a puzzle.
I mean, in the golden age, what was important was that you had an original method of death. People were killed in the most extraordinary ways. But nowadays I think we are looking for greater realism. It's interesting if you can have an original method of death, but the book should be realistic, and the people should be realistic.
So I think we are trying to be truer to life. And also to say something about the society in which we live.
WERTHEIMER: I'd like to go back to that phrase you used - the golden age. The golden age of detective fiction is generally regarded as the couple of decades between the First and Second World Wars. This is a time when lots of people started writing, I gather, in their spare time and produced a lot of very clever, very witty crime fiction of a certain kind.
Ms. JAMES: One gets the impression they were writing for their own entertainment as much as for the entertainment of the readers. And I think they were enjoying it greatly, and the books are ingenious and often very funny. And they've lasted, which is interesting.
WERTHEIMER: That is interesting. The four women authors who stand out for you -Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and I have no idea how to pronounce�
Ms. JAMES: Well, I think it's Ngaio.
WERTHEIMER: That's - I thought it was Ngaio, Ngaio Marsh...
Ms. JAMES: Yes, you're absolutely right, Ngaio.
WERTHEIMER: ...from New Zealand. I mean, their books are all in print.
Ms. JAMES: They are.
WERTHEIMER: And they are still read. What do you think was their influence?
Ms. JAMES: Well, I think that they showed that it was important to write well -and Dorothy L. Sayers wrote extremely well, for example - so that they lifted a rather despised genre into a form which could be taken seriously. Then they were very ingenious. They're very clever in their plotting, and we do care very much about their heroes, because their heroes are as different from a real-life detective as they could possibly be.
WERTHEIMER: Did their choice of how to create a character affect your choice when you set out to create your character, your detective?
Ms. JAMES: I'm not sure it did, except for Dorothy L. Sayers. I think I was quite strongly influenced by her, by the structure and the plotting and by the quality of the writing. I wasn't influenced at all by Agatha Christie. I read her with great pleasure but it seemed to me that she was basically a puzzler.
At the end of the book, you put it away thinking, well, well, how clever that was, but knowing that it couldn't possibly happen in real life. We're in Christieland, which is a very good place to be, but it's not reality; it's a different kind of reality. I think Dorothy L. Sayers...
WERTHEIMER: So you...
Ms. JAMES: ...she was trying to write about the society in which she lived and about some reasonable detection, I think.
WERTHEIMER: And that's what you did with your hero, whose...
Ms. JAMES: Whose name is Dalgliesh. I named him after my English teacher at school. And in fact it is a Scottish name.
WERTHEIMER: Were you sort of thinking in terms of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and the others and thinking, you know, I've got to have somebody here that I like?
Ms. JAMES: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that I had a warning too from Dorothy L. Sayers and from Agatha Christie: be very careful to create someone who isn't too eccentric, someone who can develop and develop in ways that you may not now even know about. But do give him the qualities that you admire. I don't think I actually believed or imagined that I'd end up being an international bestseller writer of detective fiction, but I began with it because I liked it so much myself, I thought I could do it, and I thought it would be a wonderful apprenticeship for someone setting out to be a serious writer.
So I didn't necessarily think there would be a serial, but I felt, well, there might be, so who shall, what sort of man, you know, shall I create? And I gave him the personal qualities that I very much admire. And I made him courageous but not foolhardy, very intelligent, sensitive and compassionate but not sentimental. And he has in fact developed. I haven't had to change him drastically in any way.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that detective fiction is progressing? I mean, do you think it's as good as, say, it was in the golden age?
Ms. JAMES: Yes, indeed I do. It's interesting that the orthodox detective story written very much within the same conventions is being written and written very well. I think we are entering a second golden age, and that wouldn't be surprising because the fear is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety and depression, and we're certainly in a very depressed state at the moment.
WERTHEIMER: Well, I would assume that that is happening because in times of stress people like something that is resolved.
Ms. JAMES: I think that's probably the main reason. Because we do have at the heart a mystery which is being solved, and it's not solved by good luck or divine intervention; it's solved by a human being, by human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance.
So it's, in a sense the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.
WERTHEIMER: Author P.D. James. Her new book is called "Talking About Detective Fiction." You can read an excerpt at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The author of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series has a new book, a nonfiction work called Talking About Detective Fiction. She tells Linda Wertheimer why we might be entering a second "golden age" for the detective story.
P.D. James has been writing detective fiction for nearly half a century. Her first book featuring the Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. It's no surprise that she's developed a finely honed definition of what makes for a good detective story.
"What we have is a central mysterious crime, which is usually murder," James tells Linda Wertheimer. "We have a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime. We have a detective, who can be amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it. And by the end, we do get a solution."
James is also particular about the way a plot progresses, especially the manner in which the story's clues may be revealed to its protagonist.
"The detective can know nothing which the reader isn't also told," she insists. "It would be a very, very bad detective story at the end if the reader felt, 'Who could possibly have guessed that?' "
James says she never expected to land on the best-seller list — she originally thought it would be "a wonderful apprenticeship for someone setting out to be a serious writer" — but the longtime fan has amassed a trove of knowledge about the genre. And she isn't keeping it under lock and key.
James says that the detective genre, which shone most brightly during "the golden age" — the two decades between the first and second World Wars — has stayed fertile by pairing quality writing with time-honored conventions.
In fact, says James, "I think we are entering a second golden age."
That's partly because, as James sees it, the genre has something of a calming effect.
"The theory is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety and depression, and we're in a very depressed state at the moment," she says.
The key to this appeal is the idea that no matter how puzzling the crime, a solution exists.
"It's solved not by good luck or divine intervention," James says. "It's solved by a human being. By human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance. In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world."
Asked how the genre has changed since the first "golden age," James points to the incredibly ornate deaths upon which the plots of many classic detective stories rest.
"Nowadays we look for greater realism," she says. "It's interesting if you can have an original method of death. But the book should be realistic. The people should be realistic. So I think we are trying to be truer to life and also to say something about the society in which we live."
In her new book, James lists four authors who wrote during that "golden age" — all of them female — who helped to "[lift] a rather despised genre into a form which could be taken seriously": Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.
Of the four, James says she was influenced by Sayers' sense of plotting and the quality of her writing. She loved reading Christie's books, but never believed that the author's solutions had any relationship to reality. Rather, says James, Christie novels take place "in Christie-land, which is a very good place to be. [But] it's not reality."
Still, all four gave the future writer who made a home in the genre a foundation on which to build.
"They showed that it was important to write well," says James. "They were very clever in their plotting, and we do care very much about their heroes — of course their heroes are as different from a real life detective as they could possibly be."
James notes that the sleuths that populate the popular series of Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) have something in common, and suggest a warning to would-be detective authors: "Be very careful to create someone who isn't too eccentric."
James named her detective Adam Dalgliesh after an English teacher.
"I gave him the personal qualities I very much admire," James says. "I made him courageous but not foolhardy, very intelligent, sensitive and compassionate, but not sentimental."
For 47 years, it's been a winning formula. "I haven't had to change him drastically in any way," James says.