The legendary mystery writer P. D. James, often dubbed the Queen of Crime, was born on this day a hundred years ago. Below, read her 1982 essay “Murder Most Foul,” in which she explains her attraction to detective stories, considers what makes a successful whodunit, and highlights her favorite practitioners of the genre—including her predecessor Agatha Christie, “a lady I think of less as a novelist than as a literary conjurer whose sleight of hand as she shuffles her cardboard characters can outwit the keenest eye.”
“Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject.” So wrote Dorothy L. Sayers in 1934. She was, of course, thinking of murder; not the sordid, messy and occasionally pathetic murders of real life but the more elegantly contrived and mysterious concoctions of the detective novelist. To judge, too, from the universal popularity of the genre, it isn’t only the Anglo-Saxons who share this enthusiasm for murder most foul. From Greenland to Japan, millions of readers are perfectly at home in Sherlock Holmes’s claustrophobic sanctum at 221B Baker Street, Miss Marple’s charming cottage at St. Mary Mead, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s elegant apartment in Piccadilly. There is nothing like a potent amalgam of mystery and mayhem to make the whole world kin.
When I came to write my first novel in the early sixties it never occurred to me to begin with anything but a mystery, partly I think because its highly disciplined form provides an admirable apprenticeship for a writer who aspires to become a serious novelist. I had always enjoyed the genre—Dorothy L. Sayers was a potent influence—and I was fascinated by the challenge of trying to do something new with the well-worn conventions of the detective story: the central mysterious death; the closed circle of suspects each with a credible motive; the arrival of the detective like the avenging deity of an old Morality Play; the final solution which the reader himself can arrive at by logical deduction from clues presented to him with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.
In my own reading it wasn’t the puzzle which most intrigued me and I sometimes think that fewer readers watch for every clue, note every twist in the plot, and sniff happily after every red herring than we writers imagine. My younger daughter, reading my latest book, merely comments: “It can’t be him or her; you like them too much”, and I suspect that most of us guess the murderer more through our knowledge of the author, his style, prejudices, and foibles, than through close attention to every detail of the plot. We are pitting our wits primarily against the writer, not his villain or his detective. Read More