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Talking About Detective Fiction

Master mystery writer P.D. James dissects her craft.

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If you were going to write a mystery, where would you start? The body? The murder weapon? The detective? P.D. James starts with the setting. “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character;...” she writes in her new work of nonfiction, Talking About Detective Fiction.

“Devices and Desires,” for example, was born on a deserted shingle beach in Britain’s East Anglia, when James turned her head and saw a nuclear power plant in the distance. Fans of Baroness James’s 20 novels will be rewarded by plenty of such insights into how she approaches her chosen profession, as well as some intelligent and well-read discussion of a genre that has perhaps never been more popular.

That popularity may stem from our own uncertain times, James posits, since the mystery novel surges in popularity during periods of unrest, promising a restoration of order through human reason and ingenuity. “Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life,” James writes in her conclusion. “The detective story deals with the most dramatic and tragic manifestations of man’s nature and the ultimate disruption of murder, yet the form itself is orderly, controlled, formulaic, providing a secure structure within which the imaginations of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable.”

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