McDermid explains how PD James subverted the cosiness of golden-age crime fiction.
Like so many crime writers, PD James was drawn to her vocation out of love. Before she took up her pen, she was a keen reader of detective novels, and over her long career she remained fascinated by the so-called golden age that followed the end of the first world war.
But she was more than a fan. She applied her keen intelligence to what she read, and developed a genuine expertise on the subject. I once heard her lecture on the four “queens of crime” – Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers – and she wrote a fascinating monograph on the subject, Talking About Detective Fiction. This love for the work of her predecessors is evident in a new collection of her short stories: she picks the pockets of the mechanics of golden age plotting; Agatha Christie is referenced several times; and there are knowing nods to the conventions of traditional, “cosy” mystery stories.
This appropriation of the conventions of the past sometimes misleads people into thinking of James as a cosy writer. The reality is that she is anything but, and she took on those conventions only to subvert them in an often witty way. One thing in particular sets her apart from the mainstream tradition of interwar English crime fiction, with its stately homes and bourgeois villages where reality never rears its ill-mannered head. She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fuelled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head on. Her understanding of what she often called “wickedness” is creepily accurate. There’s nothing cosy about the murders in her stories, however much their settings mimic those of their forerunners.
Photograph: PD James in 2003 Photograph: David Sandison/Rex
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