P.D. James has been writing detective fiction for nearly half a century. Her first book featuring the Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. It's no surprise that she's developed a finely honed definition of what makes for a good detective story.
"What we have is a central mysterious crime, which is usually murder," James tells Linda Wertheimer. "We have a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime. We have a detective, who can be amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it. And by the end, we do get a solution."
James is also particular about the way a plot progresses, especially the manner in which the story's clues may be revealed to its protagonist.
"The detective can know nothing which the reader isn't also told," she insists. "It would be a very, very bad detective story at the end if the reader felt, 'Who could possibly have guessed that?' "
James says she never expected to land on the best-seller list — she originally thought it would be "a wonderful apprenticeship for someone setting out to be a serious writer" — but the longtime fan has amassed a trove of knowledge about the genre. And she isn't keeping it under lock and key.
James says that the detective genre, which shone most brightly during "the golden age" — the two decades between the first and second World Wars — has stayed fertile by pairing quality writing with time-honored conventions.
In fact, says James, "I think we are entering a second golden age."
That's partly because, as James sees it, the genre has something of a calming effect.
"The theory is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety and depression, and we're in a very depressed state at the moment," she says.
The key to this appeal is the idea that no matter how puzzling the crime, a solution exists.
"It's solved not by good luck or divine intervention," James says. "It's solved by a human being. By human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance. In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world."
Asked how the genre has changed since the first "golden age," James points to the incredibly ornate deaths upon which the plots of many classic detective stories rest.
"Nowadays we look for greater realism," she says. "It's interesting if you can have an original method of death. But the book should be realistic. The people should be realistic. So I think we are trying to be truer to life and also to say something about the society in which we live."
In her new book, James lists four authors who wrote during that "golden age" — all of them female — who helped to "[lift] a rather despised genre into a form which could be taken seriously": Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.
Of the four, James says she was influenced by Sayers' sense of plotting and the quality of her writing. She loved reading Christie's books, but never believed that the author's solutions had any relationship to reality. Rather, says James, Christie novels take place "in Christie-land, which is a very good place to be. [But] it's not reality."
Still, all four gave the future writer who made a home in the genre a foundation on which to build.
"They showed that it was important to write well," says James. "They were very clever in their plotting, and we do care very much about their heroes — of course their heroes are as different from a real life detective as they could possibly be."
James notes that the sleuths that populate the popular series of Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) have something in common, and suggest a warning to would-be detective authors: "Be very careful to create someone who isn't too eccentric."
James named her detective Adam Dalgliesh after an English teacher.
"I gave him the personal qualities I very much admire," James says. "I made him courageous but not foolhardy, very intelligent, sensitive and compassionate, but not sentimental."
For 47 years, it's been a winning formula. "I haven't had to change him drastically in any way," James says.