Remembering crime writer P D James

How the ‘new Queen of Crime’ found the ideas for her novels

The author P D James, seen by some as 'the New Queen of Crime'
P D James was seen by some as
'the New Queen of Crime'
When crime writer P D James died on this day in 2014, it was a sad occasion for all who love the traditional, English detective story.

Baroness James, who began writing in the 1950s, was a link with the golden age of crime writing and has gone on record as saying one of her own favourite writers was Dorothy L Sayers.

And after the death of the acknowledged Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, in 1976, P D James was sometimes referred to by the media as ‘the New Queen of Crime’.

She will be remembered particularly for her 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels, many of which have been filmed for television.

Living until the age of 94 enabled Baroness James to enjoy her success and to go on set to watch the films of her books being made, meeting actor Roy Marsden, who was the first to play the part of Dalgliesh, on many occasions.

As a young journalist I was lucky enough to meet P D James at the Minsmere nature reserve in East Anglia during the filming of Unnatural Causes in 1992.

She was kind enough to give me some interview time and I was able to ask her some questions about her writing methods which gave me the basis for a newspaper feature.

I interviewed P D James in the caravan she had been allotted while out on location alongside two male journalists who both seemed far more confident than myself.

But the kindly mother and grandmother, who was 72 at the time, soon put me at ease. And when it became obvious that neither of my fellow hacks had actually read any of her books and were interested mainly in the filming, I plucked up the courage to ask her about her relationship with her main character, a widower who is a poet as a well as a policeman.

The beach at Dunwich, where an empty boat sparked the idea for Unnatural Causes
The beach at Dunwich, where an empty
boat sparked the idea for Unnatural Causes
She admitted that there was a lot of herself in the character of Dalgliesh as they shared a love of poetry, architecture, bird watching and the terrain of East Anglia.

She said: “I think if you are going to have a character who goes on for a series of books you do tend to give them the same interests as you have.”

Another characteristic she said they shared was taking pleasure in being alone. “I do need to be on my own when I’m writing. I need the house to be empty. It’s very strange.”

Although by then she had become a Baroness and was sitting in the House of Lords she said she made sure that when she was working on a book she did not let anything stop her writing every day.

“I very much enjoy writing detective fiction. I love the construction, the clue making, the characterisation. I love everything about it.”

I asked if she had decided to keep Dalgliesh single because it made him a more interesting character.  He had met and fallen for a young woman in her first novel Cover her Face (1962) but the relationship hit a stumbling block when he had to arrest her mother for murder.

Baroness James seemed amused but did not really answer the question. She referred to Dorothy L Sayers, who was often thought to be in love with her fictional creation Lord Peter Wimsey, but eventually married him off to a woman mystery writer, Harriet Vane.

“When she married him off it was as though she had done with him and she wrote very little about him afterwards,” P D James said.

She then revealed that she was intending to write a new Dalgliesh novel and in doing so, she gave me some valuable advice.

“I think I have the germ of an idea for another Dalgliesh book at the back of my mind now, inspired by a place. My books nearly always are inspired by a place or a setting.”

She said the opening scene of Unnatural Causes had been originally inspired by a particular part of East Anglia. “I was standing on the beach at Dunwich and I had this strong idea of a boat drifting ashore containing a corpse with the hands cut off at the wrist.”

She actually went on to write another six Adam Dalgliesh novels after my meeting with her, the last one being The Private Patient, published in 2008.

More than 20 years after our conversation, I finally started crime writing myself and took her advice by allowing a mysterious and magical setting, the upper town of Bergamo, a walled city in northern Italy, to be the inspiration for my first novel Death in the High City. 

Cover her Face and Unnatural Causes are both available from Amazon.




Write it down!

The value of keeping an ideas notebook

I am often asked where I get my ideas from by people in the audience when I give talks about my books.

It is a simple enough question, but the simple answer isn’t very helpful to others, so I usually try to expand on it.

I get my ideas from everywhere. I get them from stories and anecdotes people tell me, things I read in the newspapers, court cases that make the news, people I see when I am out and about, conversations I overhear, the list is endless.

Agatha Christie's ideas notebooks
But to make these ideas work and become the basis for a short story or an entire novel, you have to do three things.

First, you have to be open to ideas. You have to train yourself to be curious, to observe people and to make a conscious effort to think about what you hear and see. Afterwards you have to mull it over and consider how it could form the basis of a plot.

Second, you have to be creative. You can’t just take an idea and make it the plot for your book or meet an interesting person and put them straight in as a character. You have to play around with the ideas and think about how you can adapt them to fit your story, perhaps turning them inside out or adding a new twist. And with every idea you constantly have to ask yourself, what if?

Most of my characters are based on lots of different people. For example, my heroine, Sallie Parker, in The Body Parts in the Library has personality traits from many of my friends.

Third, you have to make a conscious effort to remember the ideas until you get the opportunity to write them down. You should write your ideas in a notebook you keep specifically for that purpose rather than on odd scraps of paper you could lose.

I often have a good idea and don’t get round to writing it down straight away and as a result forget what the idea was.

Also, I am not the most organised of people and have even been known to lose my notebook for a few days, so I like to have several on the go.

I don’t have very neat handwriting, so I have to make a conscious effort to write the idea down clearly so I can read it back later.

When I start plotting my novel I read through my notebooks and think about how I can use the ideas, providing I can read what I have written! Then I start another notebook specifically for my new novel, and put all the ideas in that seem to suit the story and hopefully the beginnings of a plot emerges from them.

I have always found it useful to read about the working methods of other writers in my particular genre to see if I can pick up any tips. There are lots of excellent books about the writing techniques of famous writers, which can’t fail to inspire other budding writers.

John Curran's book
 about Agatha's notebooks
I was fascinated recently to come across a book about Agatha Christie’s method of noting down her ideas and I was heartened to find she was nearly as disorganised as me!

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty years of Mysteries in the Making, offers readers the chance to see the rough, initial notes Agatha made for her novels in a large and varied stack of note books. You can read the first ideas she scribbled down that were to form the basis for some of her most famous and acclaimed stories.

It is inspiring to be able to see how even half formed ideas expressed in just a few cryptic words could lead to a best selling novel being produced that would be printed and reprinted time and time again and made into several different film and TV adaptations.

The author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran, was lucky enough to be the first Christie fan to be granted access to her work notebooks.

When he was invited to visit her former home, he stumbled across a cardboard box full of notebooks kept on a shelf in a long, narrow room where all the letters, contracts and typescripts relevant to Agatha’s work were kept.

Agatha wrote her ideas for novels
 in a series of notebooks
John recalls the moment he discovered the notebooks: ‘I lifted the box on to the floor, knelt down and removed the top exercise book. It had a red cover and a tiny white label with the number 31. I opened it and the first words that I read were “The Body in the Library – people – Mavis Carr- Laurette King.” I turned over pages at random. “Death on the Nile- points to be brought in… The Hollow – Inspector comes to Sir Henry…”

‘All these tantalising headings were in just one notebook and there were over 70 more still stacked demurely in their unprepossessing box.’

John knew then how he would spend the rest of the weekend and, as it transpired, the next four year of his life.

Perhaps his most dramatic discovery was a notebook containing two previously unpublished short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, which he later included at the end of his book about the secret notebooks.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran is well worth reading to see how the Queen of Crime worked and how she noted down her ideas.

There are new and used copies available on Amazon.



On the shelf

The Body Parts in the Library arrives at a library!

Partners in crime
There are many significant milestones when you write a novel, such as completing the first draft, sending the revised final version out for publication and receiving a printed copy to hold in your hands for the first time.

But you can’t know the names of everyone who buys your book and find out what they think about it having read it. Once it’s out there you have lost control over it to some extent, a bit like when your child starts school for the first time. 

So it was a lovely moment for me today to see my latest novel, The Body Parts in the Library, on the shelf in a library for the first time. And it was particularly special for me because it was the library where I have a part-time job.

The Body Parts in the Library is a cosy crime novel about strange things happening in a village library being run by volunteers after the long-serving staff have been made redundant. Published in September this year, it introduces a new detective duo, the Library Ladies.

I have always been a big supporter of libraries and am now a champion of the role of the Library Assistant, which I hope comes across in the novel.

New in stock

I took a photograph of The Body Parts in the Library on the shelf next to another of my books, Death in the High City, which was published in 2014.

However, it didn’t stay on the shelf for long. We are operating a Click and Collect service at the moment and when we received a request for ten crime novels, we couldn’t resist popping it into the bag.

The Body Parts in the Library is now in stock at Shepshed, Loughborough and Ashby libraries in Leicestershire. It is also available for sale on Amazon as a Kindle e-book or a paperback.






First novel published by Agatha Christie is 100 years old

The Mysterious Affair at Styles has now been entertaining readers for a century

My copy of The Mysterious Affair at  Styles was published in 1954
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at 
was published in 1954
After suffering six successive rejections, Agatha Christie’s luck finally turned when her detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in October 1920.

The story is set in England in the middle of the First World War and introduces what was to become Agatha’s series detective, the Belgian policeman, Hercule Poirot.

The novel was first published in the United States by John Lane and then in the UK in January 1921 by The Bodley Head, Lane’s British publishing company.

Poirot has come to England as a refugee and is living in a village in Essex, thanks to the kindness of a rich woman, Emily Inglethorp, who lives at the local manor house, Styles Court. The novel also introduces Poirot’s sidekick, Arthur Hastings, who has been invalided home from the Front and is invited by Mrs Inglethorp’s stepson, John Cavendish, to stay at Styles.

When Mrs Inglethorp is killed, Poirot says he owes her a debt of gratitude for helping him to have a new life in England and vows to use all his detective skills to solve the mystery of her death. Hastings has met him before and happily introduces him to the members of the family living at Styles.

As an Agatha Christie fan, I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles many years ago, along with some of her other novels, but I read them all in no particular order.

When I realised The Mysterious Affair at Styles had now celebrated its centenary I decided to re-read it because it was Agatha’s first published book and I wanted to see what I thought of it now.

The first thing that struck me was that she lets Hastings tell the story in the manner of Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It works well and is a device that more authors might consider trying. It helps her mislead the reader because Hastings fails to understand the hints Poirot gives him and at times even draws the wrong conclusion from some of the things Poirot says to him.

Agatha Christie as a young woman
Agatha Christie as a
young woman
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published by Pan Books Ltd in 1954 by arrangement with John Lane of The Bodley Head Ltd.

I was intrigued by the fact that a plan of the first floor at Styles is inserted into the middle of the text on page 26 and a diagram of Mrs Inglethorp’s bedroom into the middle of page 38.

A rough drawing of a charred scrap of paper bearing the handwritten letters ‘ll and’  is inserted into the text of page 42 and a picture of words scrawled on a crumpled envelope into the text of page 53.

I noticed some repetitions in the book, for example Hastings twice observes that the maid Dorcas is a fine example of a good, old-fashioned servant, but then you have to remember it was Agatha’s first published novel.

Dorcas describes how the young people in the house enjoy having dressing-up evenings and putting on costumes from the dressing-up box in the attic and using techniques to darken their skin so they can dress up as ‘foreigners.’

Agatha shows how people thought about other nationalities at that time, in the middle of a terrible war, when Dorcas says of Poirot:

‘A very nice gentleman he is sir. And quite a different class from them two detectives from London, what goes prying about, and asking questions. I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule, but from what the newspapers says I make out as how these brave Belgies isn’t the ordinary run of foreigners and certainly he’s a most polite spoken gentleman.’

According to the blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket of the first edition, The Mysterious Affair at Styles came about because of a bet Agatha had agreed with her sister, Madge, that ‘she could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to spot the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective.’

The text of the book included some  helpful illustrations for readers
The text of the book included some 
helpful illustrations for readers
It was acknowledged at the time that Agatha won the bet and that the plot was clever and the clues well placed. It came down to a shattered coffee cup, an old envelope, a fragment of fabric and a splash of candle grease, but it was enough for Hercule Poirot to work out who was the murderer.

It launched Agatha’s writing career and she subsequently named her own house Styles. Hercule Poirot went on to become one of the most famous characters in detective fiction and featured in 47 of her novels and collections of short stories. When Agatha told the story of his final case in Curtain, she set the novel at Styles again.

At number six, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was one of the first ten books published by Penguin Books when it started up in 1935. The novel was later adapted for television, radio and the theatre.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles marked the start of a brilliant career for Agatha, who wrote 66 detective novels in total. She remains to this day the best-selling writer of all time.

While new writers can’t hope to surpass her achievement, or even equal it, her success can at least prove inspirational.