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.



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