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P.D.'s Premeditated Plotting

P.D. James caused quite a sensation at the Boston Public Library last Tuesday. More than eight hundred eager mystery readers, hard cover copy of Original Sin in hand, pushed and shoved to get seats closest to the Baroness of Murder, unlucky over

By Natasha Wimmer

Why the fuss? This is a Jamesian question, one James herself, dressed in a red print dress and square-heeled shoes, seventy-odd years old, sensible British citizen, might see fit to ask. Even she, however, in the thirty years since her first mystery was published, has come to expect the commotion, and she knows how to please her fans. Clever, articulate and often drily hilarious, she obviously delighted in her audience. A week later, in a phone interview form Dallas with a Crimson reporter, she sounded tired (unsurprisingly, caught up in a whirl-wind tour), but responded thoughtfully to what must have been very familiar questions.

Original Sin, P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James' fourteenth novel, marks a return to mystery after the author's latest foray into straight fiction with The Children of Men. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, of New Scotland Yard, directs the investigation of a series of publishing house murders, untangling a twisted skein of death, suicide and deceit. Or is it really Detective Inspectors Daniel Aaron and Kate Miskin who do the footwork on this case? Why is Dalgliesh always away at meetings? James reacts strongly to any such queries.

"Really! Everybody has said this. I don't know where it all started, but it must have started somewhere. I don't really think he is remote from the book. I mean, he's there at the finding of the body. He's there at the postmortem. He's in charge of the investigation, he goes down to the country to see Jean-Philippe Etiene, he goes and sees the nun's sister. I did actually want to have room to develop the other two detectives, develop the relationship between Daniel and Kate, make the novel more of a team effort than the mystery usually is."

Point taken--James is not easing Dalgliesh into the background yet. Will she do another straight novel like The Children of Men next, sans the investigator? Not likely.

"I think my next will be another mystery. It might be Dalgliesh. I'd like to do another Cordelia, but I think it'll be another Dalgliesh."

Fans of Cordelia Gray, James' female private eye, will have to wait it out. Is James infatuated with the Commander?

"I don't think I'm in love with him, but I understand him very well," she says. And she doesn't advise any of her readers to fall in love with him either, cautioning "he has a splinter of ice inside."

Just now, James has plenty of chance to advise her readers on all matters Jamesian, moving from readings in Boston to singings in Toronto. What does she think of touring?

"It's very stimulating, and I think it's very good for an author. If you go on a tour, you meet your readers, and you do a signing, like the Boston one, and it's good, because the books really exist for their readers. I think I'm very privileged to have the chance to get about on a tour like this and meet the readers, when many writers don't. It can be tiring, but it's very worth-while."

When she's not touring, James is writing--and planning.

"I plot with great care, and it takes as long as the actual writing, she says." The writing, when it finally happens, often takes place at her kitchen table, before breakfast. This is a throwback to the days when the author worked in administration, and had to schedule her writing around a full day's work. What is her writing process like?

"I sometimes write out of order," she confesses. She often composes scenes corresponding with the mood she's in. She writes in longhand, turning the copy over to her confidential secretary ("sworn to silence") for a typed first draft. No one but the secretary is allowed to see what she has written until all crimes are committed and fixed in print.

What made P.D. James, forty two year-old mother of two, sit down and write a first novel? The answer to that, James seems to think, is too obvious to be elaborated upon. She always knew she would write a novel. The question she would like to answer is, why mystery?

"I think when I sat down to write my first novel, I thought I would certainly begin with a mystery, because I very much enjoyed reading them. I was quite under the influence of several women writers in the genre and I didn't want to write an autobiographical first novel. I thought the mystery was a popular form of novel, and might stand a good chance of acceptance. I am fascinated by the structure of mystery. I think it is just wonderful to work with. As I continued with the mystery, I came to understand it was quite possible to stay within the conventions and write a good novel."

What matters to James more than genre classification is free-floating inspiration. A case in point is the Children of Men, James' much-discussed futuristic detour from detectives (if not from death).

"I needed to write that book, although I knew that millions of people, thousands of people, anyway, would much rather they had another mystery. So I knew it was unlikely to be a success. I would never settle down and think 'now is the time to write a straight novel.' I think it is very possible to be a good novelist within the form of the mystery and if the next idea comes along for a mystery, that's what I'll write. And I expect that's what will happen. You know, you can never tell what ideas you'll get."

Does she favor any of her books over others?

"Difficult. I think that books are really like children, and you like them for different reasons. You love them all, and you can't put them really in order of favorites. But, I think of the mysteries, I would put A Taste For Death quite high, along with Devices and Desires, and Death of an Expert Witness."

Does she mind if people are alerted to the original books only after viewing the Mystery Theatre adaptations?

"No, it doesn't bother me at all. I think it is one of the advantages of television that millions of people have come to the great classics simply because they have seen them on television. Jane Austen, Middlemarch,, you know, through television. I think it's much better to read the books than watch television, obviously. On the whole, I've been quite fortunate with the television versions. I think they've done pretty well. Some better than others. The Dalgliesh isn't my idea of Dalgliesh."

What is her idea of Dalgliesh, if actor Roy Marsden doesn't quite fit the bill? "It's very difficult to describe him. But he's clean shaven, darker, more hair, no mustache."

James has spent her career as a writer poring over ghastly crimes and death--does she actually visit morgues or frequent scenes of crime?

"No, I don't visit scenes of crime, but I did work for quite a few years in the British Home Office, and I was responsible for the administration of the Forensic Science Service, so I know exactly how forensic science laboratories work. And I get a lot of technical help both from senior detectives and from forensic scientists, so that's been very helpful."

Helpful, but not too helpful, thank you. She's not planning on applying her theoretic knowledge in the practical sphere any time soon, not that it hasn't been suggested to her before. While teaching a seminar on mystery writing in a high security prison, she was approached by a convicted murderer. "We should work together," he said. "You've got the talent, but I've got the experience."

James may joke about murder but she considers crime in the first degree a serious matter. Does she think murder is ever justified?

"That's a difficult question. I think we're all capable of homicide, which is a rather different crime, because it can't be premeditated. I'm sure if I or my grandchildren were attacked, I'd be capable of killing somebody. But I think murder, in the sense of premeditated or planned, is something that very few people are capable of. And I don't honestly think it's ever justified. I think it's a dangerous philosophy, to say it's ever justified."

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