Goodbye PD James, Queen Of Crime
Phyllis Dorothy James, the grande-dame of crime writing, has died at 94. Until pretty recently she was still attending events, which may be proof that writing keeps you young. My pal Barry Forshaw met her many times and is now writing about her in today’s Independent.
Psychological suspensers make more sense to me than police procedurals, partly because much of what the police really do is boring slogwork, and also because the fall-off in the UK’s serious crimes rate stretches the credibility of many novels (including my own, but those always did anyway).
There’s a terrific new collection out called ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Minds’, edited by Sarah Weinman, which features some of the best so-called ‘domestic’ suspense writing, from writers like Celia Fremlin and Patricia Highsmith. Perhaps a second volume will feature James and other great stylists of the times like Constance Strong.
Writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar, Hilda Lawrence and Shirley Jackson were reflecting the conservative times in their fiction, when women we would now consider still young could be written off as neurotic lonely spinsters. Often their heroines had physical or mental fragilities.
Many such stories have an obsessive quality running through them, especially Hammer’s Women-In-Peril suspensers, which basically suggested women were irrational and prone to madness. ‘You’re highly strung!’ warns a teacher to her charge Janet in Jimmy Sangster’s ‘Nightmare’. ‘Hundreds of people are highly strung – it doesn’t mean you’re mad!’ Pretty soon, though, Janet’s convinced that she’ll become as loopy as her mother who, says one sensitive relative ‘had to be locked away – in an INSANE ASYLUM!’ Thankfully, a few decades of female empowerment brought an end to the idea of the crazy lady in fiction, and PD James certainly did a lot to encourage the notion that people were flawed or troubled regardless of gender.
When James issued her top ten tips for writing novels I wrote that I felt some of them were wrong. What clearly works for her is not what would work for many professional authors. You can find my rebuttal to these elsewhere on the blog, but here are James’ rules. She raised the bar for suspense writers everywhere and deserves to be long-remembered.
1. You must be born to write
2. Write about what you know
3. Find your own routine
4. Be aware that the business is changing
5. Read, write and don’t daydream
6. Enjoy your own company
7. Choose a good setting
8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
10. Know when to stop