After Agatha

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

Filed under: Fiction

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell discuss the development of crime writing since the age of Agatha Christie, and why it deserves to be taken as seriously as 'mainstream' fiction

JAMES: I suppose the question we get asked most often by other people is ‘Why crime?’, and in a way that ties up with when we began writing. Was your first book crime? You wrote some short stories before you were published, didn’t you?
RENDELL: You remember correctly. I wrote a lot of short stories, and I sent them to magazines and they were not accepted. Then I began to write full-length fiction. Some I didn’t finish, some I did. I wrote three, one of which – after some years of this – I sent to a publisher. It was not  a crime novel – it wasn’t even particularly suspenseful: I suppose you would call it a comedy of matters. They did not take it, but they quite liked it, and they asked me if I’d done anything else, and I had: I’d done the first Wexford. I’d done it without any serious intent – and I just thought well, I want to see if I can do this, for fun. I’d read a lot of crime fiction, and I had an idea which I think was very daring for the time, and they took it and it was published in 1964. I think that was nearly the same year as your first book.

JAMES: Very close: ’62. They accepted it in ’60, but they had too many books on the fiction list, so they postponed it for a year, which seemed an eternity, but actually was in some ways quite lucky for me, because it meant I could get on with number two in the certainty they would publish number one.

RENDELL: There’s a good story about it came to be published.

JAMES: I was spending a weekend with friends, and met an actor called Miles Malleson, and he gave me the name of his agent, Elaine Greene, who took me on. She went to dinner at All Souls and sat next to Charles Monteith, who was a director of Faber & Faber. Their crime writer had just died – he was Cyril Hare, who wrote very elegant detective stories set in the world of the law, which I still very much enjoy – and Charles Monteith said, ‘We shall be looking for another one.’ So Elaine replied, ‘I’ve found one.’  She sent him the manuscript – and he accepted it, so I was very lucky. I have a huge admiration for people who continue to write after rejection. I think that takes a lot of courage. You must have known in the end you were going to be accepted – you knew you could do it, presumably.

RENDELL: I didn’t, actually. I don’t think I wrote with that in view – I wrote because I wanted to write so much. But with you, I think your first novel was a very accomplished piece of work: I think it would have been very surprising if it had been rejected. Cover Her Face – a very good title: The Duchess of Malfi. And while you were waiting for that to be published you were writing your second – which one was that?

JAMES: A Mind to Murder. I was then working in the health service, in charge of five psychiatric units. It’s set in a psychiatric outpatient department. I couldn’t have done it without the knowledge I gained in my job.

So for both of us the first published novel was a detective story, and though you have branched out into a very different form of fiction, you still write them. Why do we enjoy writing that form, rather than what people describe for some reason or other as ‘mainstream fiction’?

RENDELL: I know why I do: because suspense is my thing – never mind detection or mystery or crime. With you it’s more that the mainstream novel is your thing, but with all the forensic stuff interwoven as an essential ingredient.

JAMES: It is. I think I like the solving of the puzzle. I like the examination of human beings under the stress of a murder investigation – what it does to people, how it strips away every skin of privacy and tears down that wonderful carapace that we all grow around our essential personalities to protect ourselves: that as a novelist is absolutely fascinating to me. I love the gradual unfolding of a mystery, I love the application of human knowledge to a mystery. It was Orwell who called murder ‘the unique crime’, one which should arise only from strong emotions. Well, of course we are both absolutely fascinated by those strong emotions.

RENDELL: I love to read your early chapters when the characters appear in great depth one after another. I’ve got to know what this character is doing, because this is going to be essential as we proceed.

JAMES:  It’s an odd way of writing: a very structured way. I suppose there’s a choice with the kind of fiction you and I write. You can begin with your body and the finding of it – it’s a moment of suspense and high drama and excitement and horror. But very often I begin with the characters and the environment, and whereas they would say in the old days that you must never let your detective know something which the reader isn’t allowed to know, my readers know a great deal more than the detective by the time the murder takes place – so Adam Dalgliesh and his team come in unaware of this turmoil of emotions swirling around.

RENDELL: I think we’ve discarded many of those old rules, don’t you?
JAMES: I think as far as we’re concerned there are no rules. There is, for me, a structure – but I find it a support, and I love it. With poetry, I love sonnets: there’s something to me absolutely compelling about a poem written in fourteen lines with a strict rhyming sequence. So the form of a detective story intrigues me, though some would say it’s outdated. You’re much freer with it than I am, but basically we are both trying to do the same thing – to write a good novel, which stands as a good novel but at the same time provides the other satisfactions of excitement and suspense, and in some cases horror. And I think what is very interesting about your work is that you are such an expert in the horror: you are either fascinated by, or knowledgeable of, the worst part of the psyche. You can cope with psychopaths. Is there an attraction in writing about people who, I suppose, the reader may say are evil?  If one can use that word, and I think one can.

RENDELL: I think the attraction to me is showing you somebody who lives in this world we live in and probably has a job and interacts with other people but has a compulsion to do these terrible things and has no moral sense to stop it. Some of my people are true psychopaths, but by no means by all. And what they do is they justify. You’ll not get one of them who’ll say, ‘I was wrong to do that,’ or ‘I can’t do that – that is something no normal decent person would do’. They say, ‘I killed that woman, but she was so unkind and cruel she was asking for it.’

JAMES: I can see the fascination of that. I’m thinking of the man who murdered and cut up a succession of homosexual young men whom he’d just met casually, and then buried them in his flat, and still held down a job and walked his dog at night. And nearly always a neighbour says, ‘He kept himself to himself’. They never say, ‘He was at the pub every day,’ because he’s living this extraordinary other life. Do you find it difficult entering into that other life?  You have to understand it because you’re making it totally alive for us. Is that traumatic? Is that difficult?

RENDELL:  Traumatic? Not at all. Difficult? Ah – you and I both find it difficult to write our books, don’t we?

JAMES: It’s not easy.

RENDELL: It’s hard. When describing these people I know what sort of a background they’ve had, what childhood, what parents, what siblings, what friends, what love affairs, if any, and what has happened to them. And taking all that baggage on board, I suppose I put myself in their shoes and say, ‘With all that behind me, what would I do now?’ But then, do either of us know how we create character, really?

JAMES: No, one just does not know. Of course, Anthony Trollope said – putting it in rather a simple way – that you must live their lives with them: you must get up with them in the morning, you must spend all day with them, you must go to bed with them at night. And I know what he meant, and in a sense one does. But it’s almost deeper than that. There is a sense, as you say, in which one is that character – especially when writing from their point of view, and both of us do that. I still find it utterly mysterious. It seems to me a process of revelation rather than a process of creation; and I can explain how it works with me from the opening chapter of Devices and Desires, where we have this 15-year-old, Valerie, walking along a country road, and we know she is going to meet the mass murderer –

RENDELL: Absolutely terrifying!

JAMES: We know, because the book opens by saying that she died because she missed the bus. She gets a lift part of the way, and she knows that if she walks up this lonely road she will catch the bus as it meanders over the Suffolk landscape which we both know so well. And when I’m describing walking along that dark country road I am absolutely Valerie – I’m feeling the fear. But with part of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Right, I’m going to have bushes this side of the road, because that’s much more horrific once she realises there’s a mass murderer close by than if there are wide fields. And on the other side I’m going to have those windswept distorted trees you get in East Anglia; and then I’m going to have a car passing, because that’s an ordinary, comforting sound – but it’ll go swishing past with noise and light and then she’ll be even more lonely.’  One is absolutely involved because one is the character, but part of the writer’s mind is actually choosing the words, deciding what is going to happen next – so it’s a very split thing, isn’t it?

RENDELL: Well, the whole thing, as you said, is a mysterious business. Now, I want you to tell me how you chose Dalgliesh’s Christian name and surname, and why you picked him – because I have said, and I think it’s true still, that he’s the most intelligent detective in contemporary fiction.

JAMES: I can remember making the choice between a professional detective and an amateur. We both have a professional, and I must say I think that is the best way because, after all, real-life amateurs don’t keep stumbling over bodies, and they lack the resources or the authority to investigate –

RENDELL: Even more so now.

JAMES: Absolutely. I attached him to the Metropolitan Police because I thought, ‘Well, it’s a very wide area, and he can be in the suburbs, or he can be in central London’; but of course if he operates somewhere else, there has to be an extremely good reason, and I have to address that in some of the books. Then I named him after my English teacher at school, who had an influence on me. She was called Miss Maisie Dalgliesh, and I chose Adam because I thought it went rather well. Several years later I went to visit her in Edinburgh and she showed me a photograph of her father and said, ‘Here’s the first Adam Dalgliesh.’

Now, Wexford, that’s an Irish place, obviously – is that what you were thinking of?

RENDELL: Yes – I’ve been on holiday in Ireland, and been into County Wexford and County Waterford, so it was a toss-up. But you see, the difference between us is that you wrote partly in order to be published – I didn’t. I only had Wexford at all because I needed an investigating officer for the purposes of a plot which relied very much on finding something out. I called him Wexford after the county, and Reginald after my favourite uncle. Even when it was published, I thought, ‘This is a one-off,’ and I wrote a couple of not very good books after that, and it was the fourth one that was another Wexford, because I thought, ‘I would like to write another detective story’ – and there he was. And after a bit I realised I had stuck myself with this rather harsh, tough, not very interesting man, and I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be stuck with this guy, I want someone who is more liberal, more of a reader, with a family, and maybe quite a funny, and so on.’  So I set to work on him like that, and that character developed over several books – which was very different from you, because you might say that Dalgliesh leapt from you like Athene from the head of Zeus.

JAMES: Well, he seemed to.

It’s interesting to me how the detective story has developed since the so-called ‘golden age’, how different it is. We have the same structure, but how varied the books are within it, and how many talents this structure and this so-called formula writing can accommodate. But of course you’ve moved out of it with Barbara Vine. It sounds presumptuous to say that you were right, but I think I would probably also have published under another name, because it was a signal that this was not Wexford, that this was a different kind of book.

RENDELL: Although I’d written different sorts of books as well –

JAMES: You had; and I think your detective novels have changed too, because you’re using them more to say things that you feel quite strongly about.

RENDELL: Oh, the political one… But of course, with you, you might say that the author of Innocent Blood and The Children of Men was your Barbara Vine.

JAMES: You’re absolutely right. It never struck me quite like that.

RENDELL: Innocent Blood is, I think, my favourite of your books – not that I don’t like Dalgliesh.

JAMES: I think if I could choose only four or five, I would probably include those two non-detective novels. I would have some Dalgliesh – probably the last one. But you know how it is with the last one: you’re too close to it. You’re still living with your characters really – they don’t go away. But the details of the individual plots do. Do you re-read your books?

RENDELL: Yes, I do. Sometimes I feel I must re-read, because I’m afraid that I’ve made some awful error.

JAMES: I do waste time – I say to my secretary, ‘What sort of flat did she have?  With how many balconies?’ – and you go chasing back to the book where the flat was first described, whereas if I kept a card index I wouldn’t have to do that.

Years ago, I went to Italy and I was lecturing at the universities of Naples and Verona and Rome, and they told me which books they were reading, so I thought I’d better read them on the plane. And do you know, in one of them I got entirely the wrong murderer – I was amazed when I discovered who did it!  And I was so grateful. I thought, ‘What would that seminar have been like if the class had got one murderer in mind and I’d got another?’  It would have been chaos.

But with research, I think that I do more of it than you do. You don’t use a lot of technical information, do you?

RENDELL: No, that’s true. But when I wrote Grasshopper I did a lot of electricity stuff, because my principal character was a female electrician, and I didn’t know anything about that. I bought a book called Electrics Made Easy. Well, a couple of years later I was in Switzerland talking to the husband of my translator – a very nice man who was a top-grade electrician – and he said to me, ‘By the way, I would like to congratulate you on your novel Grasshopper, because all the electrics were absolutely right.’ I thought, ‘So that goes to show what there is in it – nothing!  We could all mug it up out of Electrics Made Easy.’

I also did an enormous lot of research about the House of Lords for The Blood Doctor.

JAMES: And for the Underground one, and the one set in Regent’s Park.

RENDELL:  But it was the sort of research that you do by walking about with a notebook looking at things.

JAMES: That’s how I do it – I go back.

RENDELL:  Of course a lot of your Dalglieshes are set in London, and I have set many of my books in London, and you think you know your London very well, but you just have to go and check.

JAMES: Also, you have to try and describe it in a fresh way. I think one of the virtues of detective fiction is that it’s usually set unambiguously in the present world. It deals with men and women at work – and so much modern fiction seems to be very inward. It would be unfair to call it Adultery in NW11 –

RENDELL: It’s always in West 11, I thought.

JAMES: – but David Lodge is one of the few writers who can write about men in factories. You can criticise Dorothy L. Sayers, but if you really want to know what it was like to work in an advertising office between the wars, read Murder Must Advertise. There is no other novel that will tell you that – just as there is no other novel I know that will tell you what it is like to live in a remote fen village, as The Nine Tailors does.

RENDELL: A wonderful book. I re-read Dorothy L. Sayers all the time as well.

JAMES: And I’ve no doubt that your books will be re-read, and people will learn a good deal about London as it is today. I think that that is something the crime novel is able to do.

RENDELL:  I agree with you absolutely. It gives a fine record of contemporary life, and social life, manners and habits.

JAMES: Indeed it does – and it’s immensely satisfying to write. I’ve always felt we don’t so much choose our genres – the genre chooses us. I very much enjoy and admire the novels of John Le Carré, and what obsesses him, of course, is treachery; and one can see why that is. And we know what Graham Greene’s preoccupations are – we talk about Greeneland. It goes for almost all writers.

RENDELL: So will they talk about Jamesland one day?  Maybe.

JAMES: I think we shall be on the shelves for quite a long time. I don’t want to complain about the modern novel, but it’s possible to go into a bookshop and look in vain for some of the most highly regarded ones of the last 25 years. And then you go over to Crime, and there is dear old Agatha, year after year after year!

RENDELL: We don’t know why that is, do we, you and I?

JAMES: It’s astonishing, the attraction. She was extraordinarily ingenious, but she wasn’t a good writer. None of the plots could possibly happen in real life. And yet when we read her, it doesn’t seem to matter, because we’re in Christieland.

RENDELL: Is it not also perfect escape?  If I want escape, I want it to be terribly funny and witty, like Wodehouse. But many people do want Christie escape.

JAMES:  It is an escape, and it’s a return to a very settled, rather nostalgic world, which probably never was – the village with everybody moving according to their station, a world where the morality was an accepted morality; and even when Poirot or Miss Marple talk about evil, it’s really only a smell of bad drains, and the blood isn’t real blood, and at the end the little village is returned to its peace and innocence. It’s entirely different from what we’re trying to do with the crime novel today. I’m rather like you about escape: I like Nancy Mitford – that sort of funny, unreal world.

RENDELL: You could say that Dorothy Sayers is escape as well. But it is cultivated escape.

JAMES: It’s well written.

RENDELL: It’s dreadful snobbery, and some of it makes your hair stand on end, but we accept that.

JAMES: It’s very much part of the age – that is how people thought. And it’s not that the snobbery is less today – people are just snobbish about different things.

I sometimes wonder whether I’ll write another novel that isn’t a detective story. I think I shall if I get an idea which sufficiently excites me.

RENDELL: I hope you will – because you said that to me once before, and that was just before you wrote The Children of Men.

JAMES:  It’s interesting, but despite all the careful preliminary plotting and planning and research, I never get entirely the book that I thought I was going to write: the book does change during the actual writing in all sorts of interesting ways – mostly because the characters seem to reveal themselves more clearly as I live with them. They sometimes behave in rather surprising ways. I don’t mean the old idea that the characters take over and entirely have a life of their own – they always have a life of their own really; but it’s not just a question of finding new clues and new sophistications of plot.

RENDELL: The book I thought I was going to write is a very tenuous thing for me: it’s never worked out fully in my mind. A half or a third of it possibly is, but it becomes something completely different: and that’s all right. I feel with you, you slightly resent that: you want to whip it back into what it ought to be.

JAMES: I think mine is probably plotted in greater detail than yours – I think you  leave yourself free in a sense to see which way it takes you. I do force it back onto the rails.

But I think we’re very lucky really to be novelists.

RENDELL: I think so. But I suppose you also mean that you can’t imagine being anything else.


RENDELL: Perhaps one is lucky to be successful.

JAMES: I think it must be pretty appalling if you know yourself to be a good writer and you never get any acknowledgement, and you see people who write shoddy books being successful just because they happen to be celebrities or they meet some particular need. That would be difficult to bear.

RENDELL: In any art – if you’re an actor or a painter or whatever – it must be horrible.

JAMES: Awful – because it would seem so grossly unfair. Of course life isn’t fair: this is the most difficult lesson of all. And perhaps in a sense the classical detective story, particularly Agatha Christie, was making it a bit more fair. The villain did come to a bad end, the mystery was always solved. And I suppose in a world in which the mystery is not solved – and most of our mysteries never can be solved – it is comforting to go to one which has at its heart a problem which is in the end going to be solved.

RENDELL: So is that your answer to what makes crime fiction so popular?

JAMES: It’s part of it. I feel there are other things too. If you live in an age which is violent – in that it’s perfectly possible to meet a violent death in every airport lounge or travelling on the Underground – a book which affirms that the individual life, however evil or unpleasant that particular person might be, should be lived to its last natural moment – that murder is a unique crime, and that when it occurs the whole resources of a civilised state are brought to bear to solve it – is an affirmation that we live in a rational and a moral and comprehensible universe. And of course there’s a very great deal of evidence that we live in no such thing.

RENDELL: But that would mean that it was another sort of escape, wouldn’t it?

JAMES: It’s probably a civilised form of escape.

RENDELL: You can escape into a good, well-written, sophisticated novel – by no means a cheap thriller – that nevertheless will show you that even if your life is unfair sometimes, in this way you may find the fairness.

JAMES: I think that’s true. And it is written very much in the canon of British fiction that it is goodness which is the norm, evil the aberration, and it is the business of human beings to improve life for others and for themselves, and to bring order out of disorder.

RENDELL:  I hope I can remember all this when the next journalist asks me why crime fiction is so popular. I bet I don’t.

JAMES:  I’m sure you will.


RSL Review 2006

Related RSL Fellows

Ruth Rendell (Baroness Rendell of Babergh) 1988