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British Mystery Writer P.D. James Discusses Her Craft

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THE following excerpts are from a talk about detective mystery writing given by British author P.D. James at the American Booksellers Association convention this past June. James's latest book, ``Devices and Desires,'' published by Alfred A. Knopf, is due out in February.

I think of the detective story as a kind of sub-genre of the crime novel. And what we expect in the detective story is in one sense a formula - because we expect a central mysterious death, a closed circuit of suspects, a detective either amateur or professional, who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve the crime, and by the end of the book: a solution, which you, the reader, should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the book with essential fairness but deceptive cunning.

So there is, in a sense, as I've said a formula, and one of the criticisms of the detective stories so often heard is that this is formula writing. Well, alas, it often can be. But what fascinates me about this genre is the extraordinary variety of books and talents which this so-called formula is able to accommodate, and how many writers find the conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination.

With the people, it's very curious. I don't think any writer can ever explain how we invent characters. It's impossible really to describe. But it often seems to me that the people and the plot, everything about them, exists in some limbo of my imagination. And what I'm doing is quietly and with humility waiting for them to get in touch with me so that I can get their story down in black and white on paper.


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