Scones, Shortbread, & Structure: P. D. James & the Mystery Genre

When did you last attend a genuine English afternoon tea?

English: An Afternoon Tea

English: An Afternoon Tea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I helped host one yesterday at Sisters in Crime ~ Heart of Texas Chapter in Austin. The program focused on the life and work of English mystery novelist P. D. James, who recently marked her ninety-fourth birthday. Ms James’ latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, will be aired on PBS Masterpiece Mystery later this fall. All things considered, this seemed the proper time to celebrate the author’s contribution to literature. What better way than with a tea?

Here I must insert a disclaimer: When I call it a genuine English afternoon tea, I really mean a genuine Texas-style English afternoon tea. Dress was admittedly casual–very few hats or tea dresses–and I forgot to take the table linens. And the Earl Grey was made with teabags. But we had scones and shortbread and sandwiches, clotted cream, china teapots and cups and saucers, and boiling water. For an Austin Sisters in Crime chapter, that’s about as genuine as we can manage on our first endeavour.

P. D. James is my favorite mystery writer. I’ve read all of her novels, but my favorite of her books is Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, a diary she kept from her seventy-seventh to her seventy-eighth birthday. The book is a joy to read. It has an intimate tone, as if the author were speaking directly to the reader, sharing stories of her post-World War I childhood; her school days; her marriage and family life during World War II;  her work in government service; her many honors; and, of course, her novels.

The parts I enjoy most, however, are Ms James’ observations about literature and about her own work. She never thought about starting with anything other than a detective novel, she says. She had always read mysteries for recreation, and she has “a streak of skepticism, even of morbidity, which attracted [her] to the exploration of character and motive under the trauma of a police investigation of a violent death.”

She also loves structure. The detective story, she notes, is “probably the most structured of popular fiction.”

Here is the point where I must put in my oar. Critics often suggest that genre fiction doesn’t qualify as literature. It’s formulaic, they say. The writer of mystery novels simply fills in the blanks, and, Voila!–a novel appears.

I’ve read that so many times that when I started work on a mystery novel, I apologized to everyone who asked what I was writing.

But after thoughtful consideration, I no longer apologize.

The sonnet is formulaic: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, following one of two rime schemes. Do critics complain that Shakespeare’s sonnets are formulaic?

For that matter, Shakespeare’s tragedies have a set structure: five acts with the technical climax, a reversal of fortune, at the midpoint. At the middle of Act III, when Hamlet could kill his uncle Claudius but decides to wait–because Claudius is praying and, if killed now, would go straight to Heaven–do theater-goers whisper, “Well, it’s a pretty decent play, but this thing  about Hamlet not killing Claudius–that’s just part of the formula, you know.”

In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth and her immediate refusal occur at the exact center of the story. Open the book to that event–half of the pages will be on the left and half on the right. The novel is perfectly balanced. Elizabeth spends the first half of the book believing the worst of Darcy, ridiculing him, complaining about his pride, and the second half regretting the prejudice that blinded her to her own faults. That’s a definite reversal. Do we find articles pointing out that even though Pride and Prejudice is one of the finest novels in the English language, it isn’t really a big deal? Because all Miss Austen did was follow the formula?

Furthermore, the epic properly begins in medias res and comprises twelve books. Do we dismiss Paradise Lost because Milton was just copying Homer?

Enough. I’ll take out my oar. Ms James is more secure than I, and therefore presents her argument in measured tones and fewer words:

I love structure in a novel, and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. Some would say it is the most artificial, but then all fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangement by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form designed to make it accessible and attractive to a reader. The construction of a detective story may be formulaic; the writing need not be.

 The construction of a detective story may be formulaic; the writing need not be.

That’s what separates the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and other greats from the works of lesser writers.

It’s also the secret to James’ success, the reason that in her hands, the mystery genre rises to the level of literature: She takes the form, the structure, the skeleton, and covers it with art.


Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write (http://kathywaller1.com) and at Austin Mystery Writers.

Find her on Twitter @KathyWaller1 and on Facebook.


This post appeared first at Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

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