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Legendary Mystery Novelist P. D. James.

Fresh Air's book critic Maureen Corrigan interviews British mystery novelist P. D. James. James has just published her fifteenth book, "A Certain Justice," which is already on the New York Times Best Sellers List. James talks to Corrigan about the nature of the mystery novel and the differences between British and American mystery novels.


Other segments from the episode on January 21, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 21, 1998: Interview with P. D. James; Review of Roni Size's album "New Forms."


Date: JANUARY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012101NP.217
Head: A Certain Justice
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Few people we can think of are as enthusiastic and informed about detective fiction as our book critic Maureen Corrigan. She even teaches a course on the subject.

So when we heard that the British writer P.D. James, one of the most popular and respected living mystery writers, was visiting here, we decided to bring her together with Maureen for a conversation, which we're about to hear.

P.D. James began writing mysteries in the early 1960s, when she was holding down a full-time job in the British civil service and raising two daughters on her own after the untimely death of her young husband.

The enormous popularity of her novels, and of her detective hero, Adam Dalgliesh (ph), eventually allowed her to devote herself full-time to writing. In 1991, Queen Elizabeth made P.D. James a baroness in recognition of her literary achievements. Reviewers routinely place James in the same company as mystery masters like Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Coyle, and Dorothy Sayers.

James' new novel, "A Certain Justice," is a characteristically brooding tale that opens on a murder trial. A young man named Gary Ashe (ph) is accused of having brutally murdered his aunt. Ashe is successfully defended by the brilliant criminal lawyer Venicia Aldridge (ph). Then shortly after the trial ends, Venicia's bloody body is discovered in chambers, her office in the criminal court.

With P.D. James, however, there's always much more going on underneath the murder and mayhem, as Maureen learned when they spoke.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: P.D. James, it's really an honor for me to talk with you. I'm a great fan of yours and I -- I do think that with every novel, your writing gets richer and more contemplative and even more philosophical. And yet you manage to wed those philosophical musings to an often-terrifying thriller plot. It's certainly the case in A Certain Justice that you manage to create a thriller plot, and yet also give us this deeper contemplation of the meaning of evil and meaning of life.

I think we could loosely categorize A Certain Justice as a legal thriller, and that's a new area for you.


CORRIGAN: Why did you decide to enter into the legal world in this novel?

JAMES: Yes, I think you're absolutely right. A legal thriller is a good description of it. Well, I think what most attracted me was the contrast -- the contrast between the order, the dignity, the history and traditions, hierarchy, and indeed the very great pomp and courtesy with which a criminal trial is conduced in England -- and the appalling events with which it's concerned.

The idea of this crime -- the worst crime -- the most contaminating crime -- coming into that ordered world and, as it were, shattering it. And I'm interested anyway in the criminal law. I always have been. So, I think those ideas came together.

CORRIGAN: I'd like to ask you to read the passage in which a clerk who's working in the Inns of Court discovers Venicia's body.

JAMES: Yes, I think the moment in the book when the body is discovered is one of huge importance for the reader. And I always describe it through the eyes of the character who just makes the discovery. And it seems to me that the horror that character feels must be conveyed to the reader. Murder is an appalling crime -- to find a murdered body, so this is what I try to do.

And here, as you know, the body is discovered by Harry Norton (ph), who is the clerk de chambers (ph) -- the administrator of chambers, really; elderly man, just about to retire, coming to work to open the office -- rather burdened with his own problems about retirement and his family, and meets this appalling sight.

This is the actual moment when he unlocks Venicia's room and finds her dead:

"He moved slowly forward, as if drawn by the inexorable pull of a thread. She was sitting well back in the swivel chair behind her desk. The desk was to the left of the door, facing the two tall windows. Her head was slumped forward on her chest. Her arms hung loosely over the curved arms of the chair. He couldn't see her face, but he knew that she was dead."

"On her head was a full-bottomed wig -- its stiff curls of horse-hair a mass of red and brown blood. Moving towards her, he put the back of his right hand against her cheek. It was ice cold. Surely even dead flesh couldn't be as cold as this. The touch, gentle as it had been, dislodged a globule of blood from the wig. He watched horrified as it rolled in slow spurts over the dead cheek to tremble on the edge of her chin.

"He moaned in terror. He thought: 'oh, God, she's cold. She'd dead cold, but the blood is still tacky.' Instinctively, he clutched at the chair for support and to his horror it swung slowly 'round until she was facing the door, her feet dragging on the carpet. He gasped and drew back, looking appalled, at his hand as if expecting it to be sticky with blood.

"Then he leaned forward and stooping, tried to look into her face -- the forehead, the cheeks, and one eye were covered with the congealed blood. Only the right eye was unsullied. The dead unseeing stare, fixed on some far enormity, seemed as he gazed at it to hold a terrible malice."

CORRIGAN: Thank you, P.D. James. I think I can breathe again now.


That's really wonderful. That passage, in all of its gory glory is so typical of you in your writing. I'm wondering how you sleep at night with these visions swimming in your head?

JAMES: Well, I never manage ever to frighten myself. Other writers can frighten me, but I never manage really to frighten myself. I suppose, really, that is because as a writer I am part of the book. I'm -- I'm -- when I'm writing that, I am with Harry.

I am actually experiencing exactly what Harry is experiencing. But with part of my mind, I'm selecting the right words, you know, wondering whether he will touch her, where he will touch her, what the effect of touching her will be and so forth -- so that one is both part of it and detached.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. Back to poor Venicia for a moment. You -- you say that in the case that Venicia's trying before she's murdered, that -- which is also a very sinister case. A man is accused of murdering his -- his aunt...


CORRIGAN: ... and of almost certainly having sexual relations with her before he kills her.


CORRIGAN: You write that Venicia had one great advantage in this case, and that was that there was no instinctive sympathy for the victim. I don't think that there's any instinctive sympathy for Venicia herself as a victim either. And I think that's a risk that you take as a writer -- that -- that we readers, to paraphrase Edmund Wilson, might ask you: who cares who murdered Venicia Aldridge? The way Edmund Wilson once wrote: who cares who murdered Roger Ayckroyd? -- about Agatha Christie's famous novel.

JAMES: Yes. I think there's a difference. I think he was criticizing the whole genre, wasn't he?

CORRIGAN: Yes, he was.

JAMES: Just saying that we're all puzzles, which they were -- they were ingenious puzzles. He didn't care. Who did care? And possibly the reason why he didn't care was that none of the people ever came alive for him. I think with the modern detective story, what is important is to make these people come alive. There may not be much sympathy for Venicia, although I have considerable sympathy for her, because -- although, I mean, she was -- is -- an extremely difficult woman; in many ways, a disagreeable one -- and a woman who makes enemies.

I show what her background is; what her past has been. And this could have been a woman who had a very unsuccessful and bitter life. And although there is some bitterness there, she has made a successful career. She's ambitious. She's also beautiful -- that's hardly to her credit. She is extremely able. She's a useful member of society.

And I think therefore that when she's done to death, there is a sadness about that, even if she's not particularly likable.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. It seems to me, though, that oftentimes your victims fit this mold of being ambitious, careerist, sometimes even snobbish. And if they're not the victims, they're the murderers. That it's almost as though you -- you deal with these people in your books by putting them in the negative roles, and I wonder how you deal with people like that when you meet them in life? If...

JAMES: You mean, very successful...

CORRIGAN: ... yes.

JAMES: ... people.


JAMES: I think I deal with them exactly as I find them. Many of them, of course, because I'm a member of the House of Lords, are my personal friends. I'm not over-impressed by great success or great ambition, and certainly I'm not over-impressed by great wealth.

So that if they are pleasant, good, entertaining, compassionate, clever people, I'm very fond of them. And if they're not, I'm not. And you know, the amount of success they've got is -- is totally, to me, irrelevant.

I think in a detective story, it's almost inevitable that the victim, and to an extent probably the murderer, would have some of these qualities, really. You're very unlikely to have a murderer, you know, who is a very humble, hard-working, good, pleasant, compassionate, father of four children and goes regularly to the office and does his rather humble job well -- the salt of the Earth, in other words; a truly good person. A truly good person isn't going to be tempted to murder.

So inevitably you're in a world in which all these strong emotions, really, are thrashing around. And you do have victims who are unpleasant and difficult and unlikable and make enemies. And both among the suspects and of course the murderer himself or herself -- someone who is capable of that deed. And it often does go with hubris, I think. It very seldom goes with humility.

GROSS: We're listening to mystery writer P.D. James, in conversation with FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. James has a new novel called A Certain Justice. We'll get back to their talk after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to a conversation between British mystery writer P.D. James and our book critic, Maureen Corrigan.

CORRIGAN: Another character who appears in this novel is one with whom we're familiar -- those of us who know and love your books -- and that's -- that's Commander Adam Dalgliesh. It seems, though, that Dalgliesh plays a minor role in this novel, or a more -- a smaller role than he has in some -- in many of your other novels.

And I'm wondering if, perhaps like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you're growing a little weary of Adam Dalgliesh and might -- might try to get rid of him as your series goes on.

JAMES: No, no -- that isn't so at all. He may seem to play a smaller part, but I think that is because of the way in which I've constructed the novel. He can't appear, really, until the murder is committed. That's why he's called in, because a murder has been committed.

And therefore for about a third of the book, when with -- I'm describing the victim; I'm describing Venicia and her past and what's made her the kind of woman she is -- the life of chambers, the people who live in chambers -- and of course the appalling result, for her, of the acquittal of the psychopath Gary Ashe.

It wouldn't be -- it's not relevant to have Dalgliesh there. So inevitably, he's not there for part of the book. Once the murder takes place, he is certainly very much in control. There's only about one scene in the investigation where he isn't actually physically present from start to finish.

So the impression may be that he is not there, but I think if he was there any more, there's a whole structure of the book would be thrown totally out. I mean, it's nice perhaps for readers to have two or three chapters about what he's doing in his home life, but that's not the way to construct a mystery. If you really want to have each of your suspects a living, credible, interesting human being, there's space only for so much. And I think it would have thrown it out of kilter.

I'm also, I think, very interested in the -- in his team -- in the relationship of Kate with him -- in the relationship of Kate with the new member of the team, Pierre Tallent -- Pierce Tallent (ph). And all that would be lost if I had far more of Dalgliesh.

CORRIGAN: Yeah, and these are two of Dalgliesh's detectives.

JAMES: That's it, so they're members of his team...

CORRIGAN: Yes, yes.

JAMES: ... essentially. Yes.

CORRIGAN: Yeah. Dalgliesh, I mean, he's a fascinating character and I know many women, including myself, who probably are a little attracted to him romantically. He's a poet. He's a loner. He's that irresistible breed of man who looks like he needs a little cheering up.


JAMES: I think that's true. We all feel we could give him that.

CORRIGAN: We can do it. Yes. Yes. I know you've -- you've admitted in other interviews that he's perhaps a bit of an alter-ego for you. He likes to tour churches and walk by the sea...

JAMES: Yes. He's got a lot of the things I like...

CORRIGAN: ... which are activities you do. Yes.

JAMES: ... in -- of me in him. It's sort of -- that -- that's perfectly true. I suppose he's a rather -- oh damn, what should I say? -- he -- he has the qualities which I very much admire either in men or women, and he has many of my own likes and dislikes. He lives his life very much as I would live it, you know, if I were Dalgliesh, I think.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. Do you feel at all that you may have fallen into the trap that Dorothy Sayers fell into where she created a detective hero who she herself felt attracted to?

JAMES: I don't think so. I don't think I'm in love with my hero. I think she was certainly in love with Peter Wimsey, and indeed changed him in order to make of him a love object more suitable for her affections, which is always a risk, I think, with a detective. The -- he changes from the fundamental character which you begin with.

No, I think I admire Dalgliesh and respect him and I'm extremely fond of him. I don't think I'm in love with him. No, I don't feel that about him.

CORRIGAN: I was hoping to trap you into a confession here, but...


JAMES: But I am very fond of him. I'm not sure I'd like to work for him, though. I think he -- he would be a very demanding boss.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. Yes. How do you feel he has evolved, if not changed, from his first outing?

JAMES: Well, it's difficult, in a way, to say because nothing very drastic has changed in his life. I -- I -- I think (unintelligible) time, I did get him married, I have to say that. I think, really, it's -- getting a little impatient with the solitary life he's got. Just the problem of getting him suitably married off and to whom, that is one I'm rather reluctant to tackle.

So nothing greatly has changed, has it? You know, it's not that he's married or had children or anything. Life has gone on for him. I think I understand him more and more as the years go by. I think he's matured. He's been promoted. I think he realizes increasingly how much harm a murder investigation can do to the innocent.

He's more compassionate. I think he is more aware of the imperfections of the law. He's more aware that the job he does is a very necessary job, and he's never wanted to do any other job, and he's not ashamed of it. But he can see that it -- it is a job that causes immense distress to other people.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. And perhaps even more aware of his own -- the limitations of his own power. Certainly, in this novel, he can't...

JAMES: I think he is.

CORRIGAN: ... set the world right.

JAMES: Yes, he is. He's not -- I mean, in a sense I suppose, you can regard the classical detective story as a kind of modern morality play in which the detective does represent goodness, justice, decency, intellectual power, the force of good against the forces of evil. And it seemed very much like it, I think, in many of the books in the 1930s and even, of course, you know, with the Chandler hero, you know -- the white knight striding down the street, sort of not himself afraid, and so on -- somewhat romanticized as, indeed, the British detectives were romanticized.

And I think Dalgliesh realizes that, you know, it is not like that. And this is, in some ways, I was going to say, almost a grubby job.

CORRIGAN: When people talk about your novels, inevitably they -- they mention your -- your sense of place -- the sense of place in your novels. In "Original Sin," for instance, people will talk about that -- that strange 18th century Venetian palace which houses a publishing house on the Thames. Other times, you've created Victorian mansions or dilapidated churches where murders have taken place.

I think this novel has an over-abundance of sinister places that you really bring to life here. Would -- would you describe for our listeners some of the key places in this novel?

JAMES: Yes, I think what you've said is right. And place is tremendously important to me. I think one of the most horrible and sinister places is the house where the murder of the aunt takes place. When the book opens, of course, we -- we have Venicia defending young Gary Ashe, who is accused of the brutal murder -- the slashing to death of his aunt. His aunt, obviously, is a prostitute.

And they live in this house on a road which is being widened, so all the properties, of course, are being compulsorily purchased for the road widening, and boarded up and knocked down. So, there's this terrible desolation.

And then, of course, you have places which aren't, really, in themselves sinister like Temple Church and chambers. But...

CORRIGAN: But it seems as though...

JAMES: ... each give power, right...

CORRIGAN: ... a certain light makes them sinister, doesn't it?

JAMES: Indeed it can. I think place is so important in the crime novel. It, of course, does create atmosphere, but it can enhance, I think, menace by contrast between beauty and order and hierarchy, decency, and this extraordinarily disruptive crime. And of course, it does interpret character, and also adds credibility, because the more the place is real to the reader, the more the somewhat bizarre -- the bizarre events of the plot are rooted in the firm soil of reality.

CORRIGAN: Are you sensitive to the power of place in your everyday life?

JAMES: Very, very, yes.

CORRIGAN: Places that you've walked into and, I don't know, maybe felt an atmosphere that something violent had happened here or sad?

JAMES: I -- I do feel that. I've been trying to tell myself that in fact I don't feel it any more than other people feel it. I'm not -- I wouldn't claim that I feel it particularly. But I undoubtedly do -- do feel it. And I've certainly had examples.

I had one fairly recently when I was in Brighton, a seaside town, visiting a friend and his sister. And he's a priest. And we were sitting in his study and I felt, thank God that this room isn't his guest room or his sister's guest room, because if she put me in here, I couldn't have slept the night. This is terrible.

And then -- then later, I read a book by Francis King (ph), who's one of our writers, who sold that house to the priest. And it's his autobiography, and he described selling this house, which he was very fond of, to the priest. And he said: but there was one room which he couldn't enter because the atmosphere was so strong. But he wrote in his book: "but however, it's now the priest's study, so perhaps he manages to do something about it."

But I felt it very strongly.

CORRIGAN: Hmm. That's fascinating. It makes -- makes you almost want to do some research to find out what happened in the room.

JAMES: It did make me -- yes, that -- you're so right, Maureen. I always take that reaction myself.


JAMES: When something like this happens, I want to do research. I want to find what happened in that room.


GROSS: P.D. James, talking with FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. The conversation continues in the second half of the show. James' new novel is called A Certain Justice.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to continue our conversation between British mystery writer P.D. James and our book critic Maureen Corrigan. James has a new novel called A Certain Justice.

When we left off, they were talking about the sinister settings James uses in her novels, and the importance of creating places that seem real.

CORRIGAN: Another place that you describe so powerfully in this -- in other novels, other more recent novels -- is a public housing project where -- the public housing project where Kate...

JAMES: Oh, yes. Yes.

CORRIGAN: ... Miskin (ph), one of Dalgliesh's detectives...


CORRIGAN: ... was born and grew up...


CORRIGAN: ... and I -- I really love her character. I -- I -- she's very gutsy. She's also very independent...


CORRIGAN: ... and solitary. And kind of pulled herself up by her own bootstraps to get out of that public housing project.

JAMES: She has. She has.

CORRIGAN: Yeah. I may ...

JAMES: But she goes back, doesn't she, and sees it.


JAMES: Yes, and visits it again.

CORRIGAN: She -- she goes back and what I felt from that scene, though, was that she didn't belong in the world of the public housing project anymore, but she also didn't completely belong to the middle class world of the police, which she had entered by her own effort.

And I'm intrigued by this -- this portrait of class tension that you develop with her character. And this may be a stretch, so you'll tell me, but I -- I know that you yourself came from middle class origins.


CORRIGAN: Now, you are a Baroness James of Hollin Park (ph).


CORRIGAN: And I wonder if you feel any tension within yourself about kind of belonging to two worlds in terms of class?

JAMES: No. I -- I can honestly say I never have. And it was interesting to me, when I worked as a bureaucrat in the Home Department, that it seemed to me that some of the men who had not in fact been to Oxford or Cambridge -- been to other universities -- felt at some disadvantage because they weren't at one of the two major universities, just as people here might feel disadvantaged (Unintelligible) in Ivy League.

I wasn't at any university, but yes -- well, that was of course -- I was a woman; or else of course, I was a writer -- I just -- it didn't in the least bit worry me. It never has. And I -- I never am worried, actually, by class. I think I just judge people whether I think they're good people -- interesting, clever people. Or whether I don't like them, and class never actually comes into it.

But class is very interesting to a novelist, and I think you are so right about Kate because until now, Kate has never bothered herself about class. It's never worried her. That's not the kind of woman she is. But in this book, really for the first time, and in the relationship with a new young man -- the new young -- you suddenly feel that it's really not so much -- it is class, in a way, but a sense somehow that because they've had the education she hasn't.


JAMES: And do you remember that she remembers that Dalgliesh had said, would she not like to take, you know, time off...

CORRIGAN: And she bristles at that.

JAMES: ... to go -- to take a degree. And she -- she obviously responds really very ungraciously. And I think she is beginning to feel that the two men somehow have something -- a kind of understanding, a kind of comradeship, a taking of life more lightly...


JAMES: ... that she can't, in fact, sort of do herself.

CORRIGAN: Do -- do you think that maybe part of the reason also why you don't have, whatever, self-consciousness about class -- walking into the House of Lords, for instance...


CORRIGAN: ... for the first time, is because you are a writer, and somehow writers, artists belong to this other class unto themselves?

JAMES: Oh, I'm sure you're right, Maureen. I'm absolutely sure you're right. Absolutely. Yes, I'm sure that's right. And you get a kind of respect because you belong to that world.


JAMES: You don't have to compete in the other world, you know. You have your world and if you're preeminent in that, that's enough.

CORRIGAN: Do you get that respect from everyone? Or do some people look at you and say: "well, she's only a mystery writer, you know." Because certainly we've -- we've heard mysteries -- in the academy, mysteries are sort of looked down upon as second-class literature.

JAMES: Well, I think there is a difference between our two countries here. I'm beginning to feel this. I mean, you have mystery writers who are fine novelists by any criteria.

But the names that come to mind tend to be the older ones, really -- Hammett and Chandler -- who have had this, as you know better because you're an academic and your teach them -- have had an effect, really, on literature and on fiction far beyond any effect even that they've had on -- mysteries and on crime writing.

But undoubtedly when I see when I go into shops here, an extraordinary amount of writing here that goes on in the mystery format -- far more than at home. And it's difficult to believe that a lot of these novels really have great merit, and if they had, I would -- they'd probably be published back home and I would have heard of them.


JAMES: I think back home we have people -- Ruth Rendell is an example; John LeCarre is another, of course -- who are very fine novelists. And therefore, there isn't quite that attitude back home. The -- the detective novel -- the crime novel is on the whole respected.

CORRIGAN: We were talking a moment ago about Kate Miskin, who has become one of my favorite characters of yours. And I think another reason why I like her, in addition to her sense of independence, is because she reminds me of Cordelia Gray (ph)...


CORRIGAN: ... who was your -- your first female detective. Oftentimes in essays that I read on mystery fiction, other writers are credited with creating the first female private eye. They -- we seem to focus a lot on American female private eyes.


CORRIGAN: And I think you're overlooked unfairly. You were really the first, weren't you, to create at least in Britain a female private eye who worked professionally as a detective.

JAMES: I think I probably was, because we -- I mean, it was a very early book of mine, wasn't it. And I can't remember the year.


JAMES: Ah, well, I think it probably was. That's quite -- quite true. I'm often asked when I'm going to return to Cordelia -- of course I think it depends on finding the right plot. But I also suspect that I've go so interested in Kate -- I love writing about a woman detective. And if I hadn't a woman detective on Dalgliesh's team, then I would have turned to Cordelia, out of the need, really -- this emotional need and the artistic need and the just literally need to be writing about a woman detective.

But as I -- I'm glad you -- you like Kate, because I like Kate and I love writing about Kate. So I think she's rather taken attention -- my writing attention, away from Cordelia.

CORRIGAN: Of course, Cordelia could always return and marry Adam Dalgliesh. There seemed to be a little spark between them.

JAMES: There certainly was a spark there between them, and something undoubtedly is going on -- going on between them. They never tell me anything about it. I don't know. It's very tricky -- marrying off your detective, you know.

CORRIGAN: Yes. It's usually fatal.

JAMES: It's certainly time he got himself a wife. It usually is fatal. I think you're quite right.

CORRIGAN: I've recently re-read "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman," and I -- I think that scene in which Cordelia is down in a well trying to...


CORRIGAN: ... get herself out is -- is one of the most brilliant and suspenseful scenes in mystery fiction. It's -- it's amazing.

JAMES: It -- I'm claustrophobic, and nothing would be more horrible for me than to be thrown down a well. It really would be very, very dreadful. So, I'm quite surprised I managed to write that...


JAMES: ... to experience her horror there, because that is something that really would be dreadful for me.

CORRIGAN: Do you read mystery fiction that features female detectives? And if so, what do you think of it?

JAMES: I haven't read a great deal of it, really. I've read the American ones. Their names escape me.

CORRIGAN: The Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton...

JAMES: And the one whose in Santa Barbara -- Santa Monica...

CORRIGAN: That's Sue Grafton

JAMES: Sue Grafton...

CORRIGAN: ... detective...

JAMES: I've actually read most of Sue Grafton's and most of Paretsky's too. Those were chief ones. And I've read Liza Cody (ph) back home. I -- I like -- I like Grafton because her detective does seem, you know, to concern herself with keeping records and what she's going to wear and getting her exercise. And finding she hasn't eaten and she's hungry and where will she eat. And sending in her bills -- in fact, you do feel that she is a professional private eye. This is all part of her life. It isn't over-romanticized.

And I like that. I feel there's a personal experience there or a personal experience that's she's able to convey. And I've found after I'd been to California, of course, that it meant much more. As soon as you know the location, it means more.

CORRIGAN: But that's the difficulty, isn't it? -- in writing books that deal with crime and the investigation of crime, you have to -- you have to make them realistic, so you have to show the detective working at these mundane tasks like taking notes...

JAMES: Exactly.

CORRIGAN: ... but you also need to -- to sustain the reader's interest, so...

JAMES: Quite. You're so right. And I mean this is where, I suppose, it's difficult to write a book that you could really call realistic, because so much realistic investigation of murder is just dull, plodding, you know, going from street to street; and teamwork -- rather than one person.

Whereas of course, the tradition of detective stories is that you have this amazing detective who sort of symbolizes a kind of triumphant individualism, really, rather than just a member of a team.


JAMES: I also feel, really, with some of them that the first person singular, although it gives immediacy to a narrative and certainly credibility because you're more likely to believe someone who's telling you face to face -- "this is what I did; it may have seemed silly at the time, but that's what I did" -- is limiting in that you are only in one mind. You're seeing only through one pair of eyes the whole time, aren't you?

CORRIGAN: Yeah, and that's -- that's the tradition that we have in America -- the Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, first-person...

JAMES: Much more so, haven't you? Yes, absolutely, the first-person.

CORRIGAN: Yeah, yeah.

JAMES: Whereas I like to go into different minds, and sort of assume different viewpoints throughout the novel. I think it adds complexity and -- anyway, it's the way I really prefer to write.

CORRIGAN: Yeah, yeah -- and certainly suspense as well, yeah.

JAMES: Yes, I think so.

GROSS: We're listening to mystery writer P.D. James in conversation with FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. James has a new novel called A Certain Justice. We'll get back to their talk after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our conversation between British mystery writer P.D. James and our book critic Maureen Corrigan.

CORRIGAN: Another aspect of your novels, in addition to the intricate plotting and characters and the sense of place, I think that oftentimes it seems you're exploring the role of faith in a fallen world. And I'm always taking note of how -- how often you have characters related to religious institutions in some way. Adam Dalgliesh's father was a minister, and Cordelia Gray went to a...


CORRIGAN: ... convent school.


CORRIGAN: Murders take place in or near churches sometimes.


CORRIGAN: I -- sometimes when I'm reading you, you remind me of G.K. Chesterton in the sense of almost being a religious mystery writer. And it seems like you -- you were exploring this deeper mystery of the role of evil in the world.

JAMES: Yes, I think -- I'm very interested in religious experience. I'm interested in people's attitudes to religion. And I think I have a religious view of life myself. I don't think I'm a good Christian. I'm far from that. But I have a religious view of life, really, and an awareness somehow of that other dimension.

And therefore I like to introduce characters into the book who share that. But they're not usually my main characters. And I'm interested in the effect of religious belief on people. And in this book, particularly, because Pierce Tallent, who's a new member of the team is from Oxford and got a degree in theology, and this interests, of course, Kate very much because Kate is -- I was going to say a-religious. I mean, she does not -- she has no belief -- religious beliefs.

And Dalgliesh is, I would say, a sympathetic agnostic. And she says, doesn't she, to Pierce Tallent: "well you know, what do you believe? You've got a degree in theology, what do you believe? Now have you, really -- what rule to you apply to run your life?"

And Pierce says: "to get as much pleasure as I can; not to hurt other people; and not to whine."

And Kate thinks, yes, well, nothing wrong with that. And that's more or less how she lives her life -- to get as much pleasure as possible, but not to hurt others and not to whine. And then she realizes: "yes, but" -- it isn't the answer to the sort of thing she'd been dealing with. It isn't the answer to a raped and murdered child. It isn't the answer to what we think of as evil. It isn't the answer to great sins or great unhappiness.

And I think that it's that awareness, that it isn't somehow enough; that somehow there is something else needed.

CORRIGAN: Do you feel as though you're using the mystery form to explore the possibility of faith and the efficacy of faith...


CORRIGAN: ... in a fallen world?

JAMES: Well not I think in the sense of deliberately feeling I'm doing that. I don't think I'm really a didactic writer. I think this is what tends to happen, but I set out to tell a story -- the story that's come to me gradually. And somehow these extraneous matters get introduced as I write.

I -- I remember I was giving an essay in Ely (ph) Cathedral -- an essay -- a speech talk, I suppose -- a lecture in Ely Cathedral. They have a series of lectures from people prominent in various aspects of English life. And I was asked to lecture on the moral responsibility of the novelist.

And at question time, one of them said: "well, why haven't you made Dalgliesh a Christian?" And as a writer, I could only say "well, 'cause he isn't." He isn't one.

CORRIGAN: He won't become one. He won't cooperate.

JAMES: No -- because the -- to an extent, you know, that is the character I have created. He has a great reverence for religion, and it's interesting in the book when they are meeting the priest and of course, he's heard a confession and he won't -- obviously he won't break the seal. And we have Kate just impatient that he can't at least give them a hint as to whether they should still be looking for a murderer or whether he knows.

And Dalgliesh doesn't argue or say anything at all, because Dalgliesh absolutely understands.

CORRIGAN: Yes. Yeah, and respects, even if he...

JAMES: And respects -- that is what...

CORRIGAN: ... isn't wholeheartedly a part of the institution.

JAMES: ... he understands and respects.


JAMES: And so he doesn't even -- even argue with a priest.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. I'd like to go on here for -- into another topic for a moment. All the biographical essays that I've read about you always say that you began your writing career late, at age 39, which no longer seems to be that late to me, but...


... and I -- I'm -- now that you're several decades older, I wonder how your writing routine has changed, if it has, and your interests have changed?

JAMES: Well not -- I don't think the writing routine has changed very much, because I always got up early in the morning to write. And for most of my writing, I was doing a full-time job, 'cause I had a sick husband and children to support and needed something rather safer than the writing.

So, I didn't retire from the full-time job as a bureaucrat until I was 59 1/2. So it was weekends, holidays, and very early in the morning, and it's still early in the morning. I -- I'm freshest in the morning. I get tired as the day goes on.

The early afternoon is the worst time for me. I can often revive in the late evening, but the late afternoon -- afternoon is very bad. But the mornings are good, so when I'm actually writing, which I'm not doing at the moment, I would still get up early and try and get two or three hours in, you know, before the telephone goes and the working world wakes up.

CORRIGAN: On a good day, how -- how much are you able to write? How many pages?

JAMES: Well I don't think of it much by the day, but I do try, because I think it's helpful to try and set some kind of target, and it's usually about eight -- between eight or 10,000 words a week. And that would be going quite hard, really. When I say a "week," that would be a seven -- seven-day week, not a five-day week.

I think 1,000 original words, as it were -- 1,500 at the most -- is quite a day's work, really.

CORRIGAN: Have you ever hit a dry spell?

JAMES: And of course, if I kept that up, it would be 365,000 words a year -- wouldn't it? So...

CORRIGAN: Perfect.

JAMES: Sorry, I interrupted you, Maureen.

CORRIGAN: No, no -- I was wondering, as you were talking, if you had ever hit a dry spell where you simply couldn't write?

JAMES: No. Partially, actually, because there's quite a gap between the books. I don't as soon as I finished a book think: "right. What shall I do now? I must get started." I'm not a very professional writer, I suppose. I wait until I have an idea which really excites me. I open my whole mind and imagination to the possibility of that idea coming. And it usually until now has come. But, I don't set it down at once.

So maybe it's because, you know, I do it that way; that I don't have -- I don't seem to have writers' blocks.

CORRIGAN: Hmm. I'm thinking of poor Dashiell Hammett sitting and staring at his typewriter for decades and...

JAMES: Oh, dreadful.

CORRIGAN: Trying to write.

JAMES: That's absolute hell.


JAMES: I couldn't do that. I think if I ever -- I ever have a situation that no idea came, I'd feel -- right, that after 14 books I've done the very best I can with my talent. I hope I've given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. And this is it.

CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

JAMES: I'll go to the House of Lords more often. Make myself a nuisance there.


CORRIGAN: One thing I -- I noticed about this latest novel, A Certain Justice, is that you have a couple of characters who are older, who are -- one of the barristers you mentioned before who's contemplating retirement -- the clerk who's also very fearful that he might be forced to retire.


CORRIGAN: And I wonder what your own thoughts are about aging?

JAMES: Well, sometimes they say back home: "old age is not for wimps." The alternative, it seems to me, is worse, and I'm very glad. I'm of a war generation and many people I knew were killed in the war or killed in bombing. And I survived it all. So I'm extremely grateful I have.

But there is, I think, the draining away, really, of physical energy which is sad -- the touches of arthritis, the legs which become so sort of heavy, and the joints which become stiff. But the great thing, I think, is to still enjoy each day and to wake up each morning as I do, realizing that it is a privilege to have woken up; that life is a privilege and is here to be enjoyed. And I am, of course, infinitely blessed in so many ways.

So, I'm not just going to get too morbid about it, I hope.

CORRIGAN: Well P.D. James, I'd like to thank you so much for being my guest on FRESH AIR.

JAMES: Well, thank you very much for talking to me. I've enjoyed it immensely.

CORRIGAN: Thank you.

GROSS: P.D. James spoke with FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. James' new novel is called A Certain Justice.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: P.D. James
High: Fresh Air's book critic Maureen Corrigan interviews British mystery novelist P.D. James. James has just published her 15th book, "A Certain Justice," which is already on the New York Times Best Sellers List. James talks to Corrigan about the nature of the mystery novel and the differences between British and American mystery novels.
Spec: Europe; Britain; Culture; Genres; Mystery Novels; P.D. James
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Certain Justice
Date: JANUARY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012102NP.217
Head: New Forms
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The most prestigious pop music award in England is the Mercury Music Prize, given by a committee of critics and industry figures. The 1997 Mercury Prize went to Roni Size and Represent for their double CD "New Forms."

Roni Size works in the relatively new genre called "drum and bass" -- an outgrowth of British and American dance music.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


SINGER: Do you think that you can hold on
When the beat gets too strong
And you feel that you need help
To move along?

Do you think that you can hang tough
When the rhythm gets rough
And the DJ says I think you've had enough?

Do you think that you can die
Just when (unintelligible)
(unintelligible) when they get yourself a
(unintelligible) vest?

Do you think that you can compete
When you hear the back beat
You need stamina
Like an athlete

Continue the future techniques of
Full heat
Let the microphone burn
When I speak
All right

Now we're getting
Into this sound
Pick it up, shake it up
Turn it upside down

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Roni Size comes from Bristol, the small west-England town that has produced an unusually large number of British dance music acts in recent years, ranging from "Portishead" (ph) to "Tricky" to "Massive Attack."

Size presides over a loose coalition of DJs, rappers, singers, and musicians who call themselves "Represent." Together, they build layers of percussion, electronic samples, live instrumentation, and vocals to create long, dreamy, but intense compositions.


SINGER: Watching windows
Wonder if you don't
Want it?
Could be it is
Meant to be

Watching windows
Do they
Know what I know
I know way (unintelligible)

TUCKER: This music, called "drum and bass" by its fans and practitioners, began its life in the early '90s in England under the label "jungle music." It was music played in clubs meant to be danced to, not pondered in your living room arm chair. It was cult music -- the great majority of it entirely instrumental, not intended for rock critical analysis or pop radio programming.

The trick to expanding both the audience and the ambition of such music is to make it more accessible without sounding as if you're eager to sell out. Common consensus seems to have it that this is what Roni Size has done.


SINGER: I don't know no heroes
They can tell the story
I don't know no heroes
They can get the glory
Yeah, yeah, yeah

When you dance
You know, that it's all right
And when they
Kiss you and they tell you
That they know your satisfied
And then say
I don't know no heroes

TUCKER: There's been an awful lot of talk over the past year about electronica, a genre that was supposed to break as big here in America as it has in England and throughout much of Europe. But that hasn't happened, despite a number of extremely alluring releases. My own recommendation in this area would include the Chemical Brothers' "Dig Your Own Hole" and Springheel (ph) Jack's "Busy, Curious, Thirsty."

Roni Size, instead of narrowing his scope to remain pure and faithful, has more ambitiously decided to accommodate everything from rap vocals to live string sections. Sometimes, he even employs a kind of jazzy scat singing.


SINGER: (unintelligible)

TUCKER: Much of drum and bass is oral wallpaper -- pretty, repetitive, and predictable. But I like the way Roni Size makes his beat so hot and intense that the wallpaper often peels. To call this double CD, as more than one writer has, "the Sergeant Pepper of its genre," may be going too far. But the farther out Roni Size himself goes, the better his music sounds.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the double CD "New Forms" by British artist Roni Size. Size and his group just won England's most prestigious pop-music award, the Mercury Music Prize.
Spec: Music Industry; New Forms; Roni Size
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: New Forms
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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