Murder Most Foul

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Arts & Culture

The legendary mystery writer P. D. James, often dubbed the Queen of Crime, was born on this day a hundred years ago. Below, read her 1982 essay “Murder Most Foul,” in which she explains her attraction to detective stories, considers what makes a successful whodunit, and highlights her favorite practitioners of the genre—including her predecessor Agatha Christie, “a lady I think of less as a novelist than as a literary conjurer whose sleight of hand as she shuffles her cardboard characters can outwit the keenest eye.”

P. D. James. Photo: Ulla Montan.

“Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject.” So wrote Dorothy L. Sayers in 1934. She was, of course, thinking of murder; not the sordid, messy and occasionally pathetic murders of real life but the more elegantly contrived and mysterious concoctions of the detective novelist. To judge, too, from the universal popularity of the genre, it isn’t only the Anglo-Saxons who share this enthusiasm for murder most foul. From Greenland to Japan, millions of readers are perfectly at home in Sherlock Holmes’s claustrophobic sanctum at 221B Baker Street, Miss Marple’s charming cottage at St. Mary Mead, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s elegant apartment in Piccadilly. There is nothing like a potent amalgam of mystery and mayhem to make the whole world kin.

When I came to write my first novel in the early sixties it never occurred to me to begin with anything but a mystery, partly I think because its highly disciplined form provides an admirable apprenticeship for a writer who aspires to become a serious novelist. I had always enjoyed the genre—Dorothy L. Sayers was a potent influence—and I was fascinated by the challenge of trying to do something new with the well-worn conventions of the detective story: the central mysterious death; the closed circle of suspects each with a credible motive; the arrival of the detective like the avenging deity of an old Morality Play; the final solution which the reader himself can arrive at by logical deduction from clues presented to him with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.

In my own reading it wasn’t the puzzle which most intrigued me and I sometimes think that fewer readers watch for every clue, note every twist in the plot, and sniff happily after every red herring than we writers imagine. My younger daughter, reading my latest book, merely comments: “It can’t be him or her; you like them too much”, and I suspect that most of us guess the murderer more through our knowledge of the author, his style, prejudices, and foibles, than through close attention to every detail of the plot. We are pitting our wits primarily against the writer, not his villain or his detective.

So if correctly guessing the identity of the murderer isn’t always the chief attraction, what is? Perhaps it is the age-old and universal pleasure provided by a well-told story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a tale which takes us into a world in which we know that wrong will finally be righted, the guilty exposed, the innocent vindicated, and human reason will triumph. Perhaps is it the frisson of vicarious terror and danger as we sit safely by our fireside or pull the bedclothes more comfortably under our chin. Above all, in our increasingly violent and irrational world—in which so many of our societal problems seem insoluble—the mystery offers the psychological comfort of a story, based on the premise that murder is still the unique crime, that even the most unpleasant character has the right to live to the last natural moment, and that there is no problem, however difficult, which cannot be solved by human ingenuity, human intelligence, and human courage. I suspect that these are some of the reasons why I enjoy mysteries. Perhaps they are also the reason why I choose to write them.

One of the ancillary pleasures of reading mysteries is that of discovering new facts and gaining an insight into different and fascinating worlds. It has been said that a good mystery consists of twenty-five percent puzzle, twenty-five percent characterization, and fifty percent what the author knows best, and I, for one, have much enjoyed learning about horse racing from Dick Francis, theatrical life from Ngaio Marsh, banking from Emma Lathen, and campanology from Dorothy L. Sayers. The setting, too, is of immense importance in transporting us to another world. I can gain a keener and more perceptive understanding of Californian life and mores from Ross Macdonald than from any travel book. I walk the bridges of Amsterdam with Nicolas Freeling’s Van der Valk, or swelter in the heat of Bombay with H. R. F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote, while the very smells and sounds of Paris rise from the pages of Simenon.

At the risk of disappointing mystery fiends, I have to confess that I am not an addict in the sense that I have to have my daily fix even if the dose isn’t up to strength or standard. My reading is discriminating and, I admit, somewhat limited. Much as I admire those fine writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (and their influences not only on crime writing but on the modern novel has been significant), I am not really an aficionado of the school of gun, guts, and gore. I prefer a more domestic murder; the contrast between an ordered society or environment and the shocking and contaminating irruption of violent death. Those writers I most enjoy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, are all experts in malice domestic, and they conform to W. H. Auden’s dictum that “the corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.” All three worked within the conventions of the genre, yet all helped to raise the mystery from a subliterary puzzle to a form with serious claims to be regarded as a novel. All understand the importance of setting and atmosphere. All could create characters who are more than stereotypes waiting like cardboard cutouts to be knocked down by the detective. All set their stories unambiguously in their time and place and made some attempt to combine the mystery with the novel of social realism. I would place Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors high on my list of favorites, while Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke is probably among the best mysteries ever written. The opposing characters of the murderer, Jack Havoc, and the gentle but implacable Canon Avril make nonsense of the criticism that the mystery is an essentially trivial form and that the great absolutes of good and evil are, and must always remain, outside its range.

It is interesting that all three writers are women as, of course, was that phenomenon, the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, a lady I think of less as a novelist than as a literary conjurer whose sleight of hand as she shuffles her cardboard characters can outwit the keenest eye. Because this quartet of female experts in death are preeminent, I am often asked the invidious question: “Why are respectable middle-class ladies so good at murder?” It may be that literary mayhem is our way of sublimating our aggression or of purging irrational feelings of anxiety or guilt, but I doubt whether we need delve into psychological theory for an answer. The construction of clues demands a keen eye for the domestic details of everyday life, and in this women excel. Who was where and with whom and when? Who ate the poisoned salad and who prepared it? What woman would wear that purple lipstick found by the body? Who locked the library door and when? At what time precisely was that telltale red stain first noticed on the bedroom floor? And women are particularly skilled at dealing with the motives for murder, the tensions, intrigues, jealousies, and resentments which can fester in the closed circles beloved of crime writers to erupt finally into the ultimate crime.

A bad mystery is the easiest of all books to write; a good mystery is among the most difficult. The problems of construction itself are formidable. So much has to be achieved within the eighty to ninety thousand words which are the average length for the genre. The characters of the detective, victim, and up to half a dozen suspects must be firmly established and psychologically credible; the method of murder must be feasible and, if possible, original; the setting must both influence and enhance the mood of the story; the denouement—that most difficult chapter of all to write successfully—must be intellectually satisfying as well as exciting. The whole may be likened to one of those ingenious puzzles: oddly shaped pieces of wood which, when fitted together, form a perfect sphere. To achieve this, careful preliminary planning is essential before the first word is written. I usually make notes, not only of the weather, location, and characters, but of where everyone is at the crucial time of death. I try to describe the murder realistically and I am sometimes asked whether I frighten myself. The answer has to be no. I can be frightened by the books of others, never by my own. Perhaps this is because, paradoxically, the writer needs to be both deeply involved in and yet detached from his work.

And what of the future? For years now critics have prophesied the demise of the mystery, at least in its traditional form. One nineteenth-century critic, reviewing Conan Doyle, wrote: “In view of the difficulty of hitting on any fancies that are decently fresh, surely this sensational business must soon come to an end.” Certainly, it isn’t easy to invent original ways of murder, while the exotic and sometimes bizarre settings of some modern mysteries bear witness to the almost desperate search for new locations and fresh ideas. “Death hath a thousand doors to let out life” and most of them must have been used by now. Apart from the ubiquitous blunt instrument, shooting, hanging, and throttling, the unfortunate victims have been dispatched by the prolonged ringing of church bells; stabbing with an icicle; a bullet from a revolver triggered by the loud pedal of a piano; poison on the back of postage stamps; the injection of a bubble into a vein. A few have even been frightened to death.

But still the sensational business flourishes, a source of innocent relaxation, diversion, and reassurance to new generations of readers. The modern mystery addict is, of course, more sophisticated than his counterpart in the heyday of the country house murder when no cast was complete without the butler, when the library became established as the most lethal room in England, when the detective was invariably an amateur of impeccable lineage and superhuman talent while the professional police were bicycling buffoons deferentially tugging their forelocks to the gentry, and the denouement took place after dinner, with the whole cast in evening dress, when the least likely suspect would be unmasked as the murderer. Frequently he then obligingly killed himself to spare the readers the disagreeable thought of the public hangman.

The modern mystery has outgrown these naïvetés and simplicities and those writers whose work will last are those who succeed in the difficult task of combining the old traditions of an exciting story and the satisfying exercise of rational deduction with the psychological subtleties and moral ambiguities of a good novel. Here, in the words of Robert Browning, we are indeed “on the dangerous edge of things” where the writer is exploring that greatest of all mysteries, the human heart, and where there may be no neat and simple answer in the final chapter, not even for a Hercule Poirot or a Lord Peter Wimsey.

P. D. James was the author of twenty-one books, many of which feature her detective hero Adam Dalgliesh and have been televised or filmed. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. In 1991 she was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four. Her short story “The Part-Time Job,” published to celebrate the centennial of James’s birth, is available now from Vintage Shorts and Faber and Faber.

“Murder Most Foul” was originally published in the Observer in October 1982. Text © 1982 by P. D. James.

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