P.D. James Talks to Hampshire Writers by Adrienne Dines

There are two elements to a successful Detective Story:

  • Mystery with plenty of clues to be solved;
  •  It has to stand alone as a good novel.

The golden age for Detective Novels was between the great wars; we are now in another golden age. That said, there is never a convenient time to write any novel. You have to decide ot get on with it – then get on with it!

All fiction is autobiography (and a lot of autobiography is fiction!). While we stay within the constraints of a detective novel, we tell truths about men and woman. Our ambition must be to be a good writer and for this we are lucky to have such a colourful and expressive language. English is the most beautiful language in the world and it is a privilege for us to be able to work in this language.



Who am I writing about – a professional or an amateur?  There are dis/advantages to amateurs:

  1. they can have your own interests and hobbies;
  1. they can’t keep falling over bodies (except in Midsomer);
  1. the police won’t really welcome the interference;
  1. they can’t be more clever than the police;
  1. they have to know which policeman to call!


There are dis/advantages to professionals:

  1. they’ve got all the resources;
  1. you need to be accurate – talk to pc’s;
  1. being accurate can slow down the action.


Characters like retired couples are great – they have time, and possibly money, to snoop around and the dynamics of their relationship adds interest.

Currently, there are no famous detective teenagers – opening for a writer there.



Once you have the detective, you need to get the idea, the new method of murder! You need to research forensic pathologists, new ways to poison, new instruments to hammer blows on the victim.  You need to think of a suitable setting – an old house; a stretch of beach; a community of people; a nuclear power plant; a nursing home.



The setting must come alive but it must not hold up the story so you must practise your descriptive writing. Get into the habit of writing down the description when you see something useful and choose carefully. Setting, character, plot and theme have to hold together so be careful when the setting is very distinct. Currently – nobody had written a crime novel set on an oil rig because it is too hard to get access/first-hand accounts (*except that I can!!).



Character have to come alive.  Some writers, like Agatha Christie had stereotypical characters – the canny spinster, the vicar, the wealthy cad, the suspect man from abroad, the apparently (but not really) innocent secretary, the ne’re-do-well brother.

All your characters come from real life but are subtly changed by imagination. We must look to ourselves for our characters, use our own emotions and reactions.  For a writer, no experience or emotion is ever lost but you must find the right words to convey that emotion so that it is real for the reader.



The construction of a novel is important – the excitement must be distributed evenly. The beginning isn’t always written first.  Ngaio Marsh had great beginnings then wheeled the characters in for interview. Different characters had different reactions and she chose the best.  The characters set the tone of the novel, a sinister portent that the calm will soon be shattered.  In the end, the truth must come out.  One way to approach it is to write everything that happens in order then divide it up so that there’s excitement in every chapter.



It is good for the story to be about something, not just death and discovery.



Respect the language, respect the words you use and use simple words in new ways. Be sensitive to devices and desires. Make sure your opening sentence is a good one – “Brenda was the fifth victim of the murderer because she missed the bus…” suggests a whole back story that has to be fed in so it works well as an opener.


The Writer

The writer is in a strange position. S/He has to be both the character and the creative artist. You are in the scene, so work out what will frighten the character and transfer/recreate that fear for the reader.  Graham Greene said that you must have “…a splinter of ice in your heart.”  You are both within and out with the action so you must “…feel the emotion but be the writer.”

P.D.James is particularly proud of a line in Death comes to Pemberley which she wrote in the style of Jane Austen – “Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.” When asked who her favourite writers were, Austen was top of the list, with Evelyn Waugh and Hilary Mantel.  When asked why ‘P.D’ she said it was simply for speed if there was a long signing!



  1. Make a list of your own hobbies and interests.
  1. From that list, draw out skills that are required to pursue the interest.
  1. How might those skills be useful for a) a criminal; b) a detective?
  1. Make a list of character traits.
  1. Make a list of everyday situations – a traffic jam; a school run; preparing a meal…
  1. How do those traits dictate how a person might react in the various situations? For example, an impatient person will not suit a traffic jam but a dreamer might welcome to opportunity to tune in to Classic fm.
  1. What makes a person appear innocuous – consider looks, mannerisms, occupations (this should be a comprehensive list!).
  1. For each of your characters, choose a name. How does the name affect how we respond instantly to the character (think of Uriah Heep).
  1. Make a list of distinctive settings.
  1. Again, draw out from those settings the elements that make that it a suitable venue for a crime to take place.
  1. Make a list of crimes and briefly outline their method of execution.
  1. Marry the crime with a setting and a character and think about what theme your story might have.
  1. What’s your opening line?

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