December 1, 2014
Guests: Jason Sokol - P.D. James
TERRY GROSS, HOST: As Ferguson continues to raise a lot of painful questions about the racial divide in America, we're going to take a step back and examine an illusion many Northerners have about how enlightened the North was compared to the South in post-World War II America. The North was often portrayed as a land of liberty for African-Americans fleeing the racism of the Jim Crow South.
Our guest today, historian Jason Sokol, says while there were important differences in racial attitudes between the two regions, Northerners were often blind to patterns of segregation, discrimination and racial violence in their own backyards. In his new book, Sokol focuses on stories that illustrate the complexity of race relations in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Jason Sokol is an assistant professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author of a previous book called "There Goes Everything: White Southerners In The Age Of Civil Rights." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn, The Conflicted Soul Of The Northeast."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Jason Sokol, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write about Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn. You know, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Give us a sense of the racial and ethnic mix of the borough of Brooklyn in the '40s and '50s.
JASON SOKOL: Brooklyn was somewhat unique in that it was such a polyglot place at that time. It truly had a smattering of different ethnicities among its white population - Irish, Italian, Jews. And then in the - certainly in the decades from World War II and beyond, it then received a great influx of African-Americans during the Second Great Migration, many of them from the South, also some of them coming from Harlem and coming from Manhattan and moving out to Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant. And in later decades, it would also gain an influx of Caribbean immigrants as well.
But it was really a mix there in the 1940s and '50s when Jackie Robinson played at Ebbets Field. And it was fascinating to see many people from all different walks of life embrace the African-American ball player in their midst. But there are stories in my book, you know - I found letters of people saying, you know, I'm never going to be a Dodger fan again.
DAVIES: So give us a sense of what race relations were like outside of Ebbets Field in the rest of Brooklyn, I mean, in terms of patterns of segregation in housing, whether African-Americans felt comfortable in all neighborhoods, whether they were safe.
SOKOL: During World War II, there was a series of incidents of white violence against black trolley operators. We often think of World War II as a time when a fragmented nation was pushed urgently together in the fight against Nazism, but it wasn't always true at home. The fact was that African-Americans could only move to a few specific neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant being the main one due to a combination of realty practices and housing discrimination.
So the interesting thing is that you have that process going on at exactly the same time that Robinson was playing in the ballpark. So you can see what I call the two warring stories of race in the North in one package and one neighborhood, where on the one hand, you have this color barrier broken in Ebbets Field, and on the other, you have these black ghettos forming and growing and creating these islands of poverty in the middle of the city.
DAVIES: This was a time when Jim Crow laws were in effect in the South. And there was no question that a black person in these states could not check into a hotel or eat in certain restaurants or, you know, use other public facilities. What was the situation in Brooklyn? Could a black person travel safely in all neighborhoods, eat wherever he wanted?
SOKOL: You know, it was often difficult for black people to figure out where they could go and where they couldn't. And that's - some African-Americans said that that made it in a way worse, that they never knew where Jim Crow was and where it wasn't, certainly, when they tried to go to places like restaurants, for instance.
Jackie Robinson and Rachel Robinson were always treated well when they went to restaurants together because Jackie was a hero and famous. The Robinsons said, however, that they knew how the normal African-American would be treated at a restaurant when Rachel went by herself, and she was sometimes treated disgracefully. And so African-Americans often had that kind of experience, even in New York, you know, even in the nation's capital of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment and tolerance. So it's important to acknowledge that it wasn't as vicious and as violent and as stifling as the Jim Crow South, but it also wasn't freedom.
DAVIES: Jackie and Rachel Robinson, his wife, decided to move to the Connecticut suburbs after he'd been awhile and had made a good salary as a ballplayer. What was their experience capturing that piece of the American dream?
SOKOL: Their experience was very difficult. Even for a black family with cash to burn, the suburban dream proved extremely elusive. And the Robinsons learned this firsthand. Rachel Robinson describes how she would wait for the Sunday New York Times every week with great zest and pour over those real estate listings. And she would call about a home or she would go and see a home, and as soon as she gave her name or as soon it became apparent that she was an African-American, a number of different ploys would be used. Oh, the house was just taken off the market; oh, the asking price went up; oh, we just accepted another offer. And she would - she got the runaround for years, and this was in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York, as well as Fairfield County, Connecticut.
So that happened for a few years and it - the Robinsons finally started to realize their dream when the Bridgeport Herald - Bridgeport, Connecticut - published an article in 1953 about the Robinsons' experience in the town of North Stamford. So the Bridgeport Herald published this article about how the Robinsons wanted to buy a home, and they were constantly rebuffed. And the citizens of North Stamford became outraged. They were worried about their reputation. They were worried that they would be seen as something less than an enlightened Northern community. And so a couple of people, particularly Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster and his wife, Andrea, invited the Robinsons up. And many citizens in North Stamford rallied around them. And finally the Robinsons found a home in North Stamford, and they moved in in 1955.
DAVIES: And you cite a remarkable provision in the bylaws of the Greenwich Connecticut Real Estate Board's bylaws. Tell us about that.
SOKOL: The Greenwich Real Estate Board prohibited real estate brokers from "selling or renting to any race or nationality that would tend to bring down real estate values" quote, unquote. And then brokers went on to explicitly identify such groups as Jews, Italians and Negroes. So very explicitly this town Greenwich - and it wasn't alone. It was just the one that was publicized in this article and therefore made it into my book - but the one that pretty explicitly prohibited selling property to Jews, African-Americans as well as Italians.
DAVIES: It was in the 1970s that school integration became a huge issue in many communities across the country when, you know, busing plans were ordered to get black kids into white schools, white kids into black schools. Probably the most famous was the one in Boston. Where did the busing plan in Boston come from?
SOKOL: Well, busing in Boston was ordered by a federal judge - Judge Garrity. And he offered his ruling in June of 1974. And Garrity offered the ruling in response to years of obstruction by the Boston School Committee, which was the school board that sort of ran the city's system. Massachusetts in 1965 had passed a law called the Racial Imbalance Act. And it was the only law of its kind in the nation for any state of the nation where it essentially outlawed segregation in schools; that was 1965. By 1974, still the leaders of Boston had not lifted a finger to integrate any school. So in essence, they were in violation of the state law.
So by '74, the black community thought it that it had exhausted all of its options. It had tried to get the school superintendent and city council and school board to integrate the school in any way, shape or form. And because they were met with no results, the NAACP finally filed a lawsuit in '72 in Boston, and Garrity ruled on that lawsuit in '74. And he said you have to use school buses to integrate the schools; that is take white kids from white neighborhoods and put them on buses and bring them to black schools and vice versa.
DAVIES: And what was the reaction?
SOKOL: The reaction was not good. Garrity paired two neighborhoods basically in the beginning - South Boston, Southie, which we all know is poor, white, Irish. And he paired Southie with Roxbury, which was almost all African-American. And white violence broke out. Violence exploded across the city. It was pictured on the cover of newspapers not only in Boston and across the nation, also overseas. Boston became the very picture of Northern racism in '74.
DAVIES: Now, Boston, I guess, was the most extreme example of this kind of contentious violence, but it was happening in a lot of communities across the country. And a lot of the white elected officials said, look, this is not about Jim Crow. We just want neighborhood schools. In fact, Joe Biden, the current vice president, was one of their staunchest defenders in the Senate, right? Give us a sense of their argument and what merit, if any, you think there was in it, this argument that was about neighborhood schools.
SOKOL: That's right. There were few - very few elected officials who would actually defend busing, partially because of the violence it had wrought in by Boston. But even before then, elected officials were very opposed to the idea of taking children out of their, quote, unquote, "neighborhood schools." Mostly this was elected officials catering to white voters, a - you know, majority white voters - who didn't want their kids to go through integration and who didn't want their kids wrested out of their neighborhood schools.
On the Senate floor, you had - many anti-busing amendments were offered through the 1970s. Many of them were offered by Southern segregationists, people like Jesse Helms, for instance, of North Carolina, a famous segregationist. And although the House of Representatives often passed these anti-busing amendments, usually in the Senate those amendments were killed by one measure or another. But it was Biden in 1975 - Joe Biden was a freshman Senator from Delaware. He was 32 years old. And Biden offered these anti-busing bills. And when it was offered by a liberal Democrat from a border state rather than a longtime Southern segregationist - when Biden offered it, it was a lot harder for Northern liberals to oppose. And so Biden actually - his amendments passed the Senate.
DAVIES: Jason Sokol's book is "All Eyes Are Upon Us." We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is historian Jason Sokol. His new book is "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn."
You write about New York City in the '80s and '90s - I mean, a city that, you know, certainly has an identity that embraces diversity and some really horrific cases of racial violence. You want to just talk a little bit about that and the story you think it tells?
SOKOL: Well, New York City in the 1980s was a place with a series of exploding incidents of racial violence. The first one of those is one that's often forgotten, and that was the killing of Willie Turks. And Willie Turks was a subway maintenance man who worked at the Coney Island rail yards. And he was stomped to death in the neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, which is an overwhelmingly white, working-class neighborhood. He was stomped to death by a group of white teenagers. And what I say in the book is that Willie Turks's ghost in effect haunted the city for years to come because through that decade, you had a series of famous and infamous episodes, like the killing in Howard Beach, Queens, of Michael Griffith, which was 1986, and 1989, the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. 1989, of course, was also the episode of the beating of the Central Park jogger and the ordeal of the Central Park five, who we now know were actually innocent of that crime. And so all those episodes occurred, and remarkably at the end of the decade, David Dinkins won the mayoral campaign.
DAVIES: The first black mayor of New York.
SOKOL: That's right.
DAVIES: And he ran in part on a platform of making the city safer. He hired a lot more cops and then in the end, was replaced by a Republican.
SOKOL: That's true. His landmark program was Safe Streets, Safe City, where he put a lot more cops on the street. You know, Dinkins's tenure is still very controversial. Some people think he did nothing and contributed to the erosion of public life in New York and the increase in crime. But the crime rates actually started to drop through Dinkins's tenure. But the problem was that the Crown Heights riots exploded in the early '90s, which was where an African-American child was killed by the motorcade of a famous Orthodox Jewish leader. And then in response, an Orthodox Jewish man was then murdered. And in Crown Heights, you had several days of violence, and many people in the city thought that Dinkins didn't do nearly enough to stop that violence. And then Rudy Giuliani was able to capitalize. And Giuliani had first run against Dinkins in '89, and Giuliani lost. And in those four years, Giuliani really surrounded himself with a lot of different policy wonks and so forth. And he offered - was able to offer something - a vision much different than Dinkins's. And that vision carried the day in '93.
However, he also did play the race card. There was a famous rally of police officers down in lower Manhattan. And Giuliani spoke at that rally of white police officers who were disgruntled with some of Dinkins's policies. And there was even a sign held up that said, dump the washroom attendant. So Giuliani certainly benefited from that kind of racial backlash in '93.
DAVIES: You know, you write that African-American mayors were elected in a lot of Northeastern cities - Philadelphia, where we are, is one of them - and I'm wondering to what extent you think that the election of African-American elected officials, including a president now, have taken us towards a - I don't know, I hate to use this hackneyed phrase - but post-racial period in which people are capable of judging politicians by things other than the color of their skin?
SOKOL: I don't think the elected officials have taken us to a post-racial place. I don't think we're in that place where Americans evaluate candidates or one another without regard to their race. But I do think that the elections of African-American officials from the mayor's office all the way up to President Obama - I do think that those elections are still meaningful. You know, having an African-American president as a child's first memory of who a president is, for instance, I mean, that's profound. That's a profound change from the entire history of the country leading up to then. At the same time, it doesn't solve the problems of racial inequality that we still have. So I think you've got to understand that sort of duality in order to understand American race relations and I would argue in order to understand the North as well.
DAVIES: You know, we're speaking in the wake of the decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to press criminal charges against a police officer who shot an unarmed black teen. I wonder if you have any thoughts about those events and what they say about race relations in the country.
SOKOL: Those events say that we still have a long way to go. We have an African-American president, and yet we have a nation in which African-American men are still brutalized, sometimes by police officers, sometimes, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman. So, you know, the point is that I think in the 21st century we've come a long way with President Obama and others. The fact that President Obama was the one to address the nation after the news of no indictment - I mean, that's meaningful and try to comfort the nation. But the sad and sobering reality is that there's still all these racial inequalities and this persistent issue of police brutality, which just doesn't seem to die. So I think that would probably give the lie to the idea that we're anywhere near post-racial.
DAVIES: Jason Sokol, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SOKOL: Thank you.
GROSS: Jason Sokol spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Sokol's new book is called "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember mystery writer P.D. James and listen back to excerpts of two of her FRESH AIR interviews. She died Thursday at the age of 94. She wrote 18 crime novels, but even if you've never read her bestsellers, you may know her work. Seven of her books were adapted for the public TV series "Mystery." And her novel "The Children Of Men" was adapted into a 2006 film. P.D. James didn't publish her first novel until she was 42. When she started writing mysteries in the early 1960s, she was holding down a full-time job, raising two daughters and supporting her ill husband who died in 1964. The enormous popularity of her novels and of her detective hero Adam Dalgliesh eventually allowed her to devote herself full-time to writing. In 1991, Queen Elizabeth made P.D. James a Baroness.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan, who has taught courses in detective fiction, spoke with James in 1998 after the publication of the novel "A Certain Justice." It's a characteristically brooding tale that opens on a murder trial. A young man named Garry Ashe is accused of having brutally murdered his aunt. Ashe is successfully defended by the brilliant criminal lawyer Venetia Aldridge. Then shortly after the trial ends, Venetia'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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: P.D. James, it's really an honor for me to talk with you. I'm a great fan of yours. And 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. I think we could loosely categorize "A Certain Justice" as a legal thriller. And that's a new area for you.
P.D. JAMES: Yes.
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 a very great pomp and courtesy with which a criminal trial is conducted in England and the appalling events with which it's concerned. The idea of this crime - the worst crime, the most contaminating crime coming in to 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 Venetia'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 tried to do. And here, as you know, the body is discovered by Harry Norton who is the clerk to chambers - 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 site. This is the actual moment when he unlocks Venetia's room and finds her dead.
(Reading) 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 horsehair 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. In terror, he thought, oh, God, she's cold. She's dead cold, but the blood is still tacky. Instinctively, he clutched the chair for support. And to his horror, it swung slowly around 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.
CORRIGAN: It's really wonderful. In the case that Venetia is trying before she's murdered, which is also a very sinister case, a man is accused of murdering his aunt...
CORRIGAN: ...And of almost certainly having sexual relations with her before he kills her.
CORRIGAN: You write that Venetia 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 Venetia herself as a victim either. And I think that's a risk that you take as a writer, that oftentimes your victims fit this mold of being ambitious, careerists, sometimes even snobbish. And if they're not the victims, they're the murderers, that it's almost as though 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.
JAMES: You mean very successful people?
CORRIGAN: Yes, yeah.
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.
JAMES: 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 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 attempt 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.
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 Commander Adam Dalgliesh. 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: We all feel like we can give him that.
CORRIGAN: We can do it. Yes, yes. I know 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, which are lots of...
JAMES: Yes. He's got lots of things I like of me in him. That's perfectly, too. I suppose he's a rather - oh, damn, what should I say? - 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: Do you feel at all that you may have fallen into the trap that Dorothy Sayers fell into where she created...
CORRIGAN: ...A detective hero who she herself felt attracted to?
JAMES: I don't think so.
JAMES: 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 that 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 would be a very demanding boss.
CORRIGAN: Yes. How do you feel he has evolved if not changed from his first outing?
JAMES: Well, 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, and I think he's 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 is a job that causes immense distress to other people.
GROSS: P. D. James spoke with our book critic Maureen Corrigan in 1998. James died Thursday at the age of 94. Coming up, we continue our remembrance with an excerpt of my 1987 interview with James. This is FRESH AIR.This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering mystery writer P.D. James. She died Thursday at the age of 94. Seven of her novels were adapted for the public television series "Mystery." Her novel "The Children Of Men" was adapted into a 2006 film. We just heard an interview with James conducted by our book critic Maureen Corrigan in 1988. Let's get deeper into our archive, all the way back to my 1987 interview with James. It was after the publication of her novel "A Taste For Death," which became a number-one bestseller.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: In detective novels, the crime, the murder usually introduces fear and disorder into the world. And then it's the detective's job to set things right again and to recreate a balance, to recreate order. I think that you violate that in a way 'cause at the end of the book, things aren't back to their state of order and balance again. People have been irrevocably changed.
JAMES: This is true. I think, and this is one other way, really, in which the modern mystery can differ. You still have a solution. I think unless you had a solution at the end, it really wouldn't be a mystery. It wouldn't be written within the genre, to use a word I don't like, but it's the only word I think we can use. It might be a crime novel, but it wouldn't be a detective story. So you have to have the solution.
But you, nowadays, seldom have a complete restoration of order as you used to in the days of Agatha Christie and Mayhem Parva. There was this wonderful, little village, you know, in which everybody, whether they were the parson or the doctor or the chemist or the district nurse or the squire, moved like figures on a chessboard. And this disruptive crime happened and, then, as you say, order was restored. And certainly, in my novels, order isn't restored, or not necessarily so because the innocent can suffer more than the guilty.
GROSS: All writers who write about crime have to figure out how detailed, how explicit they want to make the death or the murder. And I'd like you to read a passage from your novel "A Taste Of Death" in which the first person comes in who discovers the bodies that set the story in motion.
JAMES: Yes. This is where our poor Miss Wharton, this elderly church worker, has gone to the church to clean it and replace the flowers and finds the bodies in the vestry. And I suppose it is really rather horrific because murder is horrific. And I want my reader to feel Miss Wharton's terrible shock at what she finds.
(Reading) Brightly lit, as on a stage, she saw the body still, more garish, more brightly lit than when they had first met her horrified eyes. One corpse had slipped from the low, single bed to the right of the door and lay staring up at her, the mouth open, the head almost cleft from the body. She saw, again, the severed vessels, sticking like corrugated pipes through the clotted blood. The second was propped ungainly as a ragdoll against the far wall. His head had dropped forward, and over his chest, a great mat of blood had spread like a bib. A brown and blue woolen cap was still on his head, but askew. His right eye was hidden, but the left leered at her with a dreadful knowingness. Thus mutilated, it seemed to her everything human had drained away from them with their blood - life, identity, dignity. They no longer looked like men, and the blood was everywhere. It seemed to her that she herself was drowning in blood. Blood drummed in her ears. Blood gurgled like vomit in her throat. Blood splashed in bright globules against the retinas of her closed eyes. The images of death she was powerless to shut out, swam before her in a swirl of blood, dissolved, reformed and then dissolved again. But always in blood.
GROSS: I think what I especially like about that is the impact that the discovery of the bodies has on the woman who finds them - how overwhelming the contact with death is for her. And a little later on, you write how she's afraid that she's going to vomit or that she's going to lose control of her bowels before she can even get to a bathroom. And I don't think of rotting bodies and of this contact with the stench of death as being a standard part of the British crime novel.
JAMES: No. I think Ruth Rendell writes really stickly about death. But it certainly isn't typical, really, of some of the best-known writers. In Agatha Christie, there's hardly any description of a corpse at all. In fact, I think one - in one book - I can't remember which one it was - we're told, you know, that he was killed by a blow to the head and then later, I think in some other method of death, almost as if she really couldn't face the actual description of the body. She wasn't - she didn't want to write about it. She didn't want to think about it. And certainly Dorothy L. Sayers, who I admire very much, is not very explicit about the actual corpses, is she? I think I'm trying to write a realistic novel, and murder is uniquely horrible. And I think that this shock of finding the bodies is important, really. The reader should feel it.
GROSS: Well, I think that the passage that you just read not only sets the story in motion, but it sets another theme of your novel in motion, which is how awful it is to confront death.
JAMES: Yes, to confront violent death, absolutely. And I think the novel deals with the effect of violent death - of murder - on everyone who comes in contact with it or who is involved with it. They, at least, think of it as a contaminating crime. And indeed, it proves to be so that we see, by the end of the book, that nearly every life has been changed including, Miss Wharton's, of course.
GROSS: The clues have to be fair in a detective novel...
GROSS: ...Fair to both the detective and fair to the reader. What's out of bounds?
JAMES: Oh, I think too great a coincidence. You see, what's interesting to me is that coincidence frequently happens in real life. We know, in our own experience, extraordinary coincidences happen and they do, I think, very often in real life investigation of murder. But somehow it doesn't write in the mystery. We shouldn't rely on an extraordinary coincidence. And I think that the clues have got to arise naturally from the circumstances of the book and the people, the characters and not sort of be inserted rather artificially, as if they're 6 million pieces in a plum pudding, you know, ready for the reader to pull out triumphantly and hold aloft and say, here's another clue. They must arise naturally because they can be material clues, the obvious ones like handkerchiefs, a button, cigarette ends. They can be the absence of something - gardener working in the garden, yet there aren't any footprints in the beds, the dog that didn't bark in the night. They can be largely scientific - body fluids, blood, of course. And they can rise some character. Those are probably the most interesting - the way in which people behave at one particular time, behaving out of character, apparently.
GROSS: You can't do anything like introduce a secret passageway at the end of the novel or have a twin brother come in who actually committed the crime, throwing everything off?
JAMES: Oh, absolutely not, no. You could have a twin brother, of course, if the reader knew from the beginning that there was a twin brother. You can have a secret passageway if the reader knows from the beginning that this is a very old house and it's got a secret passageway. But both, I think, have been overdone, really, in the mystery - the twin brother and the passageway.
GROSS: Do you have a rule of thumb? Does nearly everybody, or does everybody in the novel have to be a suspect?
JAMES: No, not necessarily. But I think one of the problems of writing the mystery is the number of characters you have to introduce because you obviously have a detective, and he's extremely important in one way; he's the main character. You have your victim. Then, if you're going to have a puzzle that's intriguing, you probably need about three or four suspects. So, already, you've got four, five, six major characters. So in a way, from a technical point of view, you can't afford to have too many characters who are not playing a fairly important part in the book, you know, unless they're just extraneous, walking-on parts, as it were.
GROSS: Should the reader be able to solve the crime before the detective does?
JAMES: Oh, I think so, yes. One hopes that the reader won't. But, very often in my books, the reader knows more than the detective does because I will have a scene when two suspects, perhaps, are talking together and admitting things to each other, which they certainly aren't going to admit to Dalgliesh when he interviews them. So in a sense, the reader can be a little ahead of Dalgliesh.
GROSS: We're listening back to my 1987 interview with mystery writer P.D. James. She died Thursday at the age of 94. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering mystery writer P.D. James. She died Thursday at the age of 94. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with her in 1987.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You thank the forensics unit of the police in the beginning of your book for all the help that they gave you. What kind of help did you ask them for?
JAMES: Particularly on bloodstains. This is the difference between real life and detective fiction because very often in the old books, you know, the body would be - the autopsy would be done by the village doctor on his table after dinner. And he'd immediately next morning or straightaway say, well, this is so-and-so's blood, 'cause in real life, it takes about three days to get this result. I wanted to find out, too, how exactly the examination of the scene is done. So I went to see the forensic biologists at the lab, and interestingly enough, the senior biologists are women - and very brilliant they are.
GROSS: Have you sat in on autopsies?
JAMES: No. No. I've never felt I needed to. I use a book by a forensic pathologist, Professor Keith Simpson, who is a very famous pathologist and vastly experienced in murder of course. And this is a textbook really for medical students, and I can get all the information from it I need. I've never felt I needed to watch an autopsy.
GROSS: Would you have the stomach for it if you did?
JAMES: If I needed - if I really needed to watch an autopsy in order to write the book properly, I would watch it. But I would never watch it out of curiosity. I don't think that's right.
GROSS: Do you think you'd make a good detective?
JAMES: Yes, I think it would. I don't know how good I'd be at the dollar part of the investigation. I mean, so much of it is plotting from door-to-door, and this is so vitally important. But I think women on the whole are underused in the detective force because I think we are much cuter about people. I mean, I think women can tell when another person is lying much more easily than men. And in some real life crimes that one has read, I found myself thinking, well, how on earth could they have been taken in by that story? And that if a woman had been there, she would've known that that was a lie - that it had to be a lie.
GROSS: Would it make you really angry if I told all of our listeners who did it in your book? I mean, how important would that be - I'm not going to do it - but how important would that be to you?
JAMES: Well, Terry, who knows? They might hear over the phone a terrible gurgling scream as I've fastened my hands around your throat.
JAMES: I hope not.
JAMES: I hope not. Well, how important is it? Well, this is interesting, isn't it? I mean, obviously I think people don't want to be told. Obviously, they're reading it partly for the puzzle. But what is interesting about the mystery is that the ones I really enjoy, I reread. I mean, the actual solution to the crime can't really be so dominant -can it? - because if it were, we would never reread. And we do reread our favorites. We know perfectly well who did it. But I don't think we want to know in advance in the first reading. That's for certain.
GROSS: I'd better be careful then (laughter).
JAMES: Oh, you had better be very careful.
GROSS: I know a lot of people have commented that it seems almost ironic that here you are writing these novels - these mystery novels with rotting corpses and people whose lives are irrevocably changed by violence. And you are a very, you know, controlled, probably pretty orderly woman - you know, an older woman who seems to have a great control over your life, and you're not probably the adventurous sort.
JAMES: No. No I don't think I am, Terry. Quite right.
GROSS: So does this seem like a great contradiction to you?
JAMES: It may be, you know, in some way in which I exercise what I think is quite a deep rooted fear of violence on my part. I'm frightened of violence. I dislike violence. I do love good order, good social order, good psychological order. I don't like messy lives. I think this is perfectly true. Of course, none of us can be totally in control of our own life, and if we think we are, then all sorts of horrible little things jump out at us behind the next corner, don't they? But I do like a fairly ordered life, a fairly structured life, yes. This is true.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
JAMES: Thank you very much for having me. It's been very interesting, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: P.D. James recorded in 1987. She died Thursday at the age of 94. If you want to catch up with interviews that you missed or listen to our show on your own schedule - when you're walking the dog or just walking - try podcasting us. It's free and easy to get on your podcast app or on iTunes.
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