Grotesque murders aside, James’ novels, perhaps more than those of any other living writer, inspire debate over whether detective fiction can be great literature. There are those who grouse that she has merely brought some highbrow literary tricks to a fun, resolutely pedestrian genre. But others assert that her fat, discursive and beautifully written books are nothing less than art. Her characters are complex and introspective, her settings meticulously described and her stories progress at a stately pace more reminiscent of an 18th century novel than a dime store whodunit. Her books can also be somewhat challenging: In James’ melancholy, gray universe, there are few innocent victims, few completely unsympathetic killers.
Phyllis Dorothy James began writing in the late 1950s under difficult circumstances. Her husband had returned from World War II so profoundly disturbed he had to be institutionalized, and she supported their two children by working at various bureaucratic jobs. Still, in her late 30s she found the energy to launch a stupendously successful writing career, producing segments of her first novel — “Cover Her Face,” published in 1962 — while commuting to work on the train. In her San Francisco hotel room, on tour to promote her 14th novel, she talked to Salon about why she likes writing about murder, and why a lone corpse in the drawing room is more horrifying than a dozen on the street.
Just about every time your name is mentioned, the question comes up about whether detective stories can be art. Are you sick of finding yourself perpetually at the center of this debate?
I never get over defensive about it because I never, ever have experienced — in England — any suggestion that I was dealing with an inferior form. But it does seem in the United States as if the mystery is a slightly despised form. It’s sometimes easy to see why genre writing is despised because you look at the number of books that you feel probably would not have seen the light of day if they hadn’t been mystery, or science fiction. Everything is sacrificed to produce a puzzle, or excitement; setting is perfunctory and above all characterization has no subtlety, no ambiguity. All that is wanted is a thrill. But that of course is bad genre writing. Genre writing at its best is some of the best fiction we have, and what is interesting to me is how many so-called straight novelists are moving into it, like Martin Amis with “Night Train,” which is a pastiche of an American hard-boiled crime novel.
There’s another genre, the spy novel. I personally regard John le Carri as a very fine novelist, as indeed is Eric Ambler, as indeed was Graham Greene. It isn’t easy to make this division and say: That’s genre fiction and it’s useless, and this is the so-called straight novel and we take it seriously. Novels are either good novels or they’re not good novels, and that is the dividing line for me.
It seems to me that working within the mystery genre solves one of a novelist’s biggest problems, which is plot. It offers a built-in structure — the unraveling of a crime — on which you can hang all kinds of interesting characters and ideas.
Yes, that’s it. I’ve tried to use the well-worn conventions of the mystery and subvert them, stretch them, use them to say something true about my characters, about men and women and the society in which they live. The mystery is an artificial form, but then all fiction is an artificial form. All fiction is the rearrangement of the author’s compulsions, visions, ideas in what the writer hopes is a compelling and logical form. I’ve often said it’s just as absurd to say you can’t write a good novel within the form of a mystery as it is to say, how could you possibly write great poetry in the sonnet form? After all, you’ve only got 14 lines and you’ve got to have a strict rhyming sequence. I think many writers find that the discipline and conventions of the detective novel are in fact liberating.
So now that we agree that detective novels can be good literature, do you read them?
Not very much, actually. I would read my friends, and that includes Ruth Rendell. I’ve certainly read the great names — I have a very high regard for Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald. I’m also rather fond of Sue Grafton because I feel that her detective is not only a likable, but also a really credible character. I like the way we know where she lives; I like the way she actually sends out bills. There’s a realism about those novels I think is rather attractive. But I don’t read a great deal of modern fiction. As I get older — I’m three years off 80 now — I’m increasingly fond of biography, autobiography, history and letters. The last thing I had on my bed at home was “The Letters of Nancy Mitford.” I do quite a lot of rereading of my favorites, which are Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope. I am getting a great deal more fond of Henry James than I was. Of the novelists writing today, I like the women. I like Anita Brookner and A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble.
If you don’t read a lot of detective stories, what about the crime dramas on television?
I don’t think it was so highly regarded here, but back home we very much enjoyed “Murder One.” I loved “Murder One.” I really was hooked on it. I liked the insight into the American system of law, and of course the characters and their motives, and their interaction. Although it wasn’t tremendously dramatic all the time, there was a good strong thrust of story. You really cared who had murdered this young girl. I’m also very fond of the “Prime Suspect” series. Those have been absolutely brilliant.
Now that you find yourself drawn to biographies and histories, do you ever wish you’d written in another genre?
No, I think we write what we need to write.
Why do you need to write about murder?
I guess there are psychological reasons for that which I don’t entirely understand, but I love structure in the novel. It’s not surprising that overwhelmingly my favorite novelist is Jane Austen — structure is tremendously important to her. I love the idea of bringing order out of disorder, which is what the mystery is about. I like the way in which it affirms the sanctity of human life and exorcises irrational guilts.
You started writing at a very tough time in your life — your husband was ill, you were working, raising children. That must have taken incredible motivation.
Oh it did indeed, it did indeed, because I was not only working full time, I was going to evening classes to get the professional qualification in hospital administration. I was visiting my husband in hospital on the weekend, and when the children were home, of course I was with them. It was just that I realized that there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel, and if I didn’t make time, find the motivation, I would be a failed writer and that would be absolutely appalling for me. My first book was called “Cover Her Face,” and it was somewhat conventional really, derivative of the English country house mystery.
You sound disparaging of your first book. Do you have favorites and least favorites among your books?
They’re like children, you know, you love them all for different reasons. I would be tempted to say the first one is now my least favorite, because I think the others are so much better. But then it’s unkind to say that, because it’s like a first child, it got me started as a writer. But I suppose if I was told that one book had to disappear without a trace, it would probably be the first.
Speaking of first novels, you’ve said before that you decided to write a detective novel because it would spare you from having to write the typically autobiographical first novel. You’ve also said you thought writing a detective novel would be a “good apprenticeship” if you wanted to be a serious novelist.
I thought that if you wanted to set out to be a novelist, this was a form that could teach you how to do it. You may remain in it, you may go outside of it, but if you tried to do it well, you’d really learn so much, largely because it has to be so carefully structured. You have to have credible characters, the setting has to come alive and you have to produce narrative thrust and your ingenious plot. It is a wonderful training.
But doesn’t the term “apprenticeship” suggest you’d originally planned to move on and write a different kind of book?
Very early on I realized what I still very firmly believe now: that I could remain within the form and be a serious novelist. It’s difficult to write a good mystery, easy to write a bad one. That’s why so many are written. But you have to do so much in your 80,000 words! I suppose when I started I didn’t quite know what I was meant to do, but then I discovered it was a deeply satisfying form.
In “A Certain Justice” the victim, Venetia Aldridge, doesn’t even die until page 100, which is almost a third of the way through the book. Why do you give so much space to a character who would seem to be more important to the book in death than in life?
I like to try to show what makes the victim the victim. The victim is usually someone who is not particularly agreeable. You’re unlikely to have a victim who is an absolutely delightful, kind, lovely wife and mum with 2.15 children and a loving husband. Somehow there’s got to be a motive for this appalling and contaminating crime. So therefore the victim is usually someone like Venetia, someone who has made enemies. And I think it’s important to show why the victim has made enemies. In “A Certain Justice,” it’s interesting to think back to what made this rather cold-hearted, brilliant, ambitious, beautiful woman the kind of person she was.
I was also struck by the fact that at the end of this book, while the mystery is solved, the killer appears to have gotten away with it.
It’s been one characteristic of the modern mystery — think of the cozy mysteries between the wars, think of Agatha Christie — that justice is always done. The murder might take place in this little village but the place never really loses its essential peace and innocence. The vicar may find the body on the study floor, but it doesn’t really interfere with his Sunday sermon and then in the choir room Miss Marple discovers the culprit. Murder isn’t like that. In real life, it’s perfectly possible over and over again for the police to know perfectly well who did it but not to be able to bring anyone to court because they haven’t got the evidence.
Where does the idea for a new book come from?
My books begin with a place, the feeling I want to set a book there, whether it’s an empty stretch of beach or a community of people. In “A Certain Justice” I loved the contrast between the tradition, the ceremony, the order, the dignity, the great courtesy with which a criminal trial is conducted and the appalling events which normally give rise to it. And the rather privileged lives of the barristers, their chambers, the idea that this most destructive crime would come into the very center of chambers and strike down a leading barrister. This was the idea that sparked off my creative imagination.
Your books are sometimes described as “cozy,” but there’s usually a very grisly murder at the heart. Why do you think this is?
I don’t think my books are cozy. I think Agatha Christie is, I think Ngaio Marsh is. But I don’t think I would describe “A Taste for Death” or “Devices and Desires” as cozy at all. But I suppose reviewers are making a rather simplistic assessment of the difference between the so-called hard-boiled American school and the British school. People do say the most astonishing things. One interviewer said to me, “You know, it was amazing that these respectable English ladies like Agatha Christie dealt with these dreadful, horrific, violent crime novels,” and I said, “Agatha Christie? Dreadful, violent, horrific crime novels?” But, you know, that’s the thing about Agatha Christie, they’re not dreadful, violent and horrific. They are cozy. People think a bit exterior at times, don’t they? I suppose where Agatha’s concerned it’s part of the attraction. You go back into that rather comfortable, conforming, peaceful world.
It’s not unusual for a mystery writer to turn out a book a year — but you’ve said you usually take 18 months plotting, 18 months writing. That seems like an awfully long time.
Yes, on the whole there are about three years between books. A lot of that is the coming together and I don’t seem able to hurry that process. I think that’s a problem. I can hurry the actual research but getting in touch with the characters, getting to know the characters, finding out what actually they did, figuring all that out does take a long time. By the time I come to write, it’s very clear in my head, but nevertheless what is surprising is how the novel changes during the actual writing.
What about the writing? Do you work on a set schedule?
I try, once I begin to write, to stay in the world of the book. It never pays to put the book on one side for a long time if inspiration seems to be flagging. I get up early in the morning. I write a lot by hand and some with an old electric typewriter, which is very precious to me.
So you don’t work on a computer?
I don’t like modern technology. It doesn’t suit me, really. I like things down in front of me, not up on a screen. I dictate what I’ve done after two hours, on tape, and that way my secretary can come and she can type it back and I use that as a first draft. Dictating is quite useful because you can hear the dialogue, hear the structure of the sentences, the very subtle and peculiar usage that is English prose.
At this point, is writing a labor of love?
There are moments when I’m rather reluctant to get started, the sort of day when even cleaning the stove seems an agreeable thing to be doing rather than start writing. But on the whole it is a labor of love.
Have any recent real-life crimes captured your imagination?
I can’t think of many in recent years. Some of the old ones in Victorian and Edwardian England have. Some of those Victorian cases are particularly fascinating, with the contrast between the prosperity and the respectability of the cluttered drawing rooms and these Victorian ladies, and these astonishing emotions seething away under the surface which lead to murder. But many cases, honestly, are not particularly interesting, forensically or in any other way.
You’ve been quoted saying that one corpse in the drawing room is more awful than a dozen on the street. Why is that?
I think it was W.H. Auden who said that there is the potential for more horror in that one single body on the drawing room floor than there is in a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. That one body is out of place: It’s shocking because it’s in the wrong place. We don’t associate murder with the vicarage drawing room. I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it. We get it with the murder in Cambridge in high summer, in “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” We get the bodies in the church in “A Taste for Death,” brutally murdered in what is, after all, a holy place. We get it here with the senior barrister struck down in her chambers, murder entering into the very heart of law and order.