Friday, March 19, 2021

Setting, setting, setting!

Important advice for aspiring crime writers from author P D James

Over the years P D James has consistently maintained that setting is a key element in a detective novel.

When I interviewed her for a newspaper feature in the 1990s she said her own novels were nearly always inspired by a particular place she had visited.

She loved the East Anglian coasts, Suffolk in particular, and set many of her novels in seaside towns she found particularly inspiring, having explored them thoroughly to enable her to describe the setting for her stories evocatively.

Helpful book for novice
 crime writers
She believed that it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that the reader can fully enter into the world of the characters. She agreed with the many crime fiction readers who have said convincing characters are important, but felt the setting for a novel, the place where the characters live and move about, is also a vital element.

In her book Talking about Detective Fiction, P D James says the world in which the characters in a novel live has to be made to seem real. She writes: ‘We (the readers) need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.’

She also believes it’s important for the setting to be seen through the eyes of one of the characters, not merely described by the author, and that setting can establish the mood of a novel, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example.

P D James writes: ‘We only have to think of …that dark and sinister mansion, set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be to the establishment of atmosphere. The Hound of Wimbledon Common would hardly provide such a frisson of terror.’

She was inspired to write her novel, Devices and Desires, (1989), one of her 14 novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, while on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, when she was standing on a deserted shingle beach one day.

She writes: ‘There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.’

PD James says she was excited because she knew that however long the writing took she would eventually have a novel.

She began her research by visiting nuclear power stations and speaking to the scientists to find out how nuclear power stations are run.

Bergamo's historical upper town
I took the advice PD James gave me when I met her in the 1990s, but it was not until many years after I had interviewed her that I wrote my first novel, Death in the High City, having been inspired by the magical city of Bergamo in northern Italy.

PD James wrote her book, Talking about Detective Fiction, at the request of the Bodleian publishing department. She says she was invited by the Librarian to write a book in aid of the Library on the subject of British detective fiction, because it is a form of popular literature that had for over 50 years fascinated her and engaged her as a writer.

At the beginning she describes how the genre started in the 19th century, pinpointing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as the first English detective story. She then discusses the contributions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with his character, Sherlock Holmes, and G K Chesterton, with his amateur sleuth, Father Brown.

The work of the four Queens of Crime – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh is evaluated along with that of other Golden Age writers. She then casts her eye over the American PI offshoot from the genre and the modern developments British writers have now introduced.

Perhaps the most helpful to aspiring crime writers are the final three chapters of this fascinating little book, where P D James deals with setting, viewpoint and character.

Looking into the future, she predicts that many people will continue to turn to the detective story for ‘relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge.’

PD James published her final Adam Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, in 2008.

Talking about Detective Fiction was published by Bodleian Library in 2009.

PD James died in November 2014 in Oxford.

Talking about Detective Fiction is available from or


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