P.D. James on the Mystery Novel's Changing Form P.D. James is considered one of the greatest living writers of detective fiction. Steve Inskeep talks with the British mystery writer about her new book, and how the mystery novel has changed over the years.

P.D. James on the Mystery Novel's Changing Form

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5070452/5070453" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When she writes a mystery novel, P.D. James creates a character so nasty that almost anybody could want him dead. Then she kills him off. And she has a way of luxuriating in the details of the corpse. In her latest novel, the fog clears on an English island revealing a lighthouse.

Ms. P.D. JAMES (Author, "The Lighthouse"): (Reading) High against the whiteness of the lighthouse, a hanging body, the blue and red thread of a climbing rope taut to the railings; the neck mottled and stretched like the neck of a bald turkey; the head grotesquely large dropped to one side; the hands palms outward as if in a parody of benediction.

INSKEEP: That's P.D. James reading from her novel "The Lighthouse." Before becoming one of the most distinguished writers of detective fiction she worked for the British government and she remains in Britain's House of Lords at the age of 85. Today she joins our conversations taking The Long View. As we end this year, we're listening to people of long experience. That certainly describes P.D. James and Nathan Oliver, her latest novel's murder victim.

Ms. JAMES: Here he is, a man who had a pretty appalling upbringing, but knew obviously from a very early age that he had a very great talent. And now at the end of his life it's slipping away and he's got nothing else. So he's a very frightened man.

INSKEEP: We have to mention that his talent was as a writer.

Ms. JAMES: He was a great writer. He was a great novelist. And he's spent his life developing that talent, using people, of course, along the line, discarding people.

INSKEEP: Did you find it in any way challenging to make a writer despicable?

Ms. JAMES: Not at all challenging. Not at all difficult. I think it's actually easier to portray people who are despicable, even evil, than it is to portray people who are good. And I suppose I recognize certain emotions in myself, which I've just absolutely magnified and attached them to a man who I hope is very different from myself.

INSKEEP: Do you see in yourself that tendency to almost use the people around you as objects that you observe and just draw the life out of...

Ms. JAMES: I don't use them as objects, but Graham Greene said every writer has a splinter of ice in the heart. And I think that means that the writer is able to be detached from a great deal of emotion and often detached from his own sorrow, his own hurt and look at it, stand outside it and describe it.

INSKEEP: Have you thought over the years about where your splinter of ice might have come from?

Ms. JAMES: I think it's just part of being a writer. And I don't think it means that a writer doesn't feel and a writer isn't compassionate. I simply mean that it's possible even while suppose I'm comforting a friend who's in great distress over something--and while comforting her I do feel for that distress, I want to comfort, but part of my mind is watching how the distress manifests itself, is watching both of us, standing outside both of us and seeing this little act played out almost as if 20, 25 years later I might want to write about something like that.

INSKEEP: How has the detective novel changed in your lifetime?

Ms. JAMES: It's changed quite a lot in my life, actually, but I suppose the greatest change was between the so-called golden age between the wars when practically everybody was writing detective fiction. But then of course what was of the first importance was the murder itself. It had to be bizarre. It had to be original. It was a great age, you know, of bodies found in locked rooms with no windows, dead there with no apparent weapon, looks of extreme horror on their faces. And I think that now the mystery has moved much closer to the mainstream novel. And that means that character is of the greatest possible importance.

INSKEEP: Because you focus on character, do you think that real human character has changed in your lifetime or been revealed in a different way?

Ms. JAMES: I can't think that in life people are revealing themselves any differently, except, I suppose, they are more ready apparently to be honest about their feelings and emotions than they used to be and more ready perhaps to admit faults because we haven't got that same rigid sense of morality. But whether that means that they reveal the essential self any more, I'm not sure because I think there is always some mystery about what and who are we. We don't really find the time or space to look at what and who we really are.

INSKEEP: Is it getting easier to lose track of yourself today and I mean humanity in general, not necessarily you personally?

Ms. JAMES: Possibly, yes. Because we do live in a very disturbing and violently changing world. I mean, I can consider when I was a child, for example--I was born in 1920, so that's near 1925. If a Victorian child had come into our house, that child would have been perfectly at home. There was no motor car, we had no television. We had a radio, which would have surprised her. We were lit at that time by gaslight, which would not have been strange to her. But now bring even a child born in the time I was suddenly into our modern world with the computers and the mobile phones and people able to get to the moon--and it's happened in such a short space of time. It's happened suddenly within--it's happened within my lifetime.

INSKEEP: Is there something that you think is timeless about the form of fiction that you write?

Ms. JAMES: You know, that's an interesting question. In the Victorian age, there was a reviewer from Blackwood's Magazine and he was reviewing one of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. And he wrote, `Considering the difficulties of hitting on any fancies that are decently fresh, surely this sensational business must shortly come to a close.' He obviously didn't like Sherlock Holmes. But the sensational business hasn't come to a close. I think it probably meets rather atavistic, old-age interest. We are interested in murder. We are interested why people will step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of us.

Human beings love puzzles. And of course with the detective story, you do get a story. You get vicarious excitement and danger, you get the satisfaction of a puzzle. But I also think you get psychological satisfactions that--the detective novel, in a time when any of us certainly could meet our death in the underground or in any building or in any airport lounge by terrorists, this is a comforting thought, which shows that even the most unpleasant people, like Nathan Oliver in my last book, have a right to their live their lives to the last natural moment and that murder is still a unique crime. In other words, I think the detective story affirms our belief that we live in a rational and a moral and comprehensible universe, despite all the evidence which is coming to us that we do no such thing.

INSKEEP: P.D. James' latest novel is called "The Lighthouse," and she's helping to give us The Long View. We're going to have these conversations all week. We're going to hear later in the week from Mike Wallace of CBS and the folksinger Odetta, who turns 75 on New Year's Eve. Our series continues tomorrow with a man who worked in the White House Map Room during World War II.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.