I have been reading and thinking about PD James’s little book, Talking About Detective Fiction (Knopf 2009) while putting together a proposal for a new crime series. I feel as if she’s been my companion through this process, my reactions to her observations revealing my own preferences. But alas, I’ve used up all the renewals at the local library, and must return the book tomorrow. So I wanted to share some of the passages I particularly enjoyed, the one relating to her own choices.
Talking about point of view, she says: “My own choice of viewpoint is partly authorial, a detached recorder of events, and partly to move into the minds of the different characters, seeing with their eyes, expressing their emotions, hearing their words. …This for me makes a novel more complex and interesting [than first person], and can also have a note of irony as this shifting viewpoint can show how differently we can all perceive the same event.” (149-50) I, too, choose multiple points of view for much the same reasons. However, I seldom (if ever?) use “authorial, a detached recorder of events”; perhaps occasionally to give an overview of the setting. But ever since I realized that as a reader I often skip over long descriptions unless I’m learning something about a character, I tend to describe the setting from a character’s point of view. My preference, certainly not a RULE.
In the same chapter James describes how she went about choosing her main character. I didn’t find that helpful because my main characters choose me. But I did enjoy what she had to say about “the other characters, particularly the victim and the unfortunate suspects”: “If we do not care, or indeed to some extent empathise with the victim, it surely hardly matters to us whether he lives or dies. The victim is the catalyst at the heart of the novel and he dies because of who he is, what he is and where he is, and the destructive power he exercises, acknowledged or secret, over the life of at least one desperate enemy. His voice may be stilled for most of the novel, his testimony given in the voices of others, by the detritus he leaves…, but for the reader, at least in thought, he must be powerfully alive. Murder is the unique crime, and its investigation tears down the privacy of both the living and the dead. It is this study of human beings under the stress of this self-revelatory probing which for a writer is one of the chief attractions of the genre.” (153-54) Yes! I love the passage , but particularly the part I’ve italicized at the end. This is precisely what engages me, watching the community squirm. And always I want to remember the victim, that what is at stake is not only the danger that the murderer will strike again, but also that the murderer will escape punishment. I find it fascinating that she considers five suspects unwieldy—not that I disagree, but I’ve never counted.
I laughed when I read the following, wholeheartedly agreeing: “…however well I think I know my characters, they reveal themselves more clearly during the writing of the book, so that at the end, however carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned. It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation, not of creation.” (157-58) When my characters begin to act up, I relax. Now I’m in play.
And lastly, I appreciated this summation: “Murder is a contaminating crime and no life which comes into close touch with it remains unaltered. The detective story is the novel of reason and justice, but it can affirm only the fallible justice of human beings, and the truth it celebrates can never be the whole truth any more than it is in a court of law.” I think of the characters in my novels as poignantly, tragically human, even the murderers. They are all contaminated by the violence of the crime.
And yet I don’t find the writing of murder mysteries depressing. In fact, I find them more optimistic than the historical novels I’ve been writing. I think it’s because the continuing characters are, for the most part, safe at the end of the story. I can create loving relationships for them, and much joy. I didn’t have that power with Alice Perrers or Joan of Kent.
Much to ponder, from a writer I admire. As always, your thoughts are welcome.