What comes first, murder or motive?
The answer for author P.D. James is like the plots of her whodunits: never the obvious.
"What usually comes first is the setting," James said. "I can have what I think is a strong response to the spirit of a place. I can be perhaps in an old house or a community of people, a lonely stretch of beach, and say this is where it happened."
James was recently in New York from her home in Britain to promote her latest mystery, "The Lighthouse," which is set on a remote, treeless island and features the author's Scotland Yard detective, Cmdr. Adam Dalgleish. The jazz-loving detective, who also writes poetry, and his team are sent to Combe Island, an uber resort off the Cornwall coast for government officials who need a break from their very public lives. A gruesome murder takes place.
"I concocted the island," said James; Combe was a prettier version of one she had briefly visited, Lundy, off Britain's coast.
Like Lundy, Combe has cliffs, but its architecture is based on homes photographed by James during trips in southwest Britain. "I have taken bits and pieces of real places and put them on the island," recalls James, dressed in black slacks, a lavender blouse and an antique heart-shaped silver locket that rests below a long scarf. Her right hand shows a ring with Baltic amber just over an inch in length.
Using an island as a setting for a mystery was tricky, she said, because it invited comparisons to Agatha Christie, whose detective fiction has taken place on an island. "The island is a pretty obvious thing for detective writers," James said. "I had to ensure it had to be a unique island."
But no one would ever mistake James' fiction with that of Christie -- creator of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot -- or with that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, even though James' publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, lauds her as a successor to both.
"The Lighthouse," with a first printing of 250,000 copies, has hit bestseller lists. And with 19 books, 85-year-old James has been awarded prizes for crime fiction in Britain, the United States and Italy.
"Neither Doyle nor Christie ever wrote a book that compares with the novels of P.D. James. Doyle and Christie are genre writers -- clever, yes, but one must suspend considerable disbelief right from the get-go when reading their works. No such acrobatics are necessary with a James novel," author Anita Shreve said at a recent dinner where the National Arts Club honored James with its Medal of Honor for Literature.
James, who has worked as a filing clerk, hospital administrator and in the forensics and criminal justice departments of Britain's Home Office, has had a colorful life. She was born in Oxford and wrote her first novel, "Cover Her Face," by hand in her 30s, before going to work to support her daughters and husband, who was injured in World War II. She plotted the details of her first mystery while riding London's tube to work at a hospital.
"It was a late beginning for someone who knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a novelist, and, looking back, I can't help regret what I now see as some wasted years," James wrote in a 1999 autobiography, "Time to Be Earnest."
The plot of her latest novel largely unspools in less than a week, but much of the action occurs over a 24-hour period. This is no easy task because there are many characters to weave in as well as multiple motives for the murder of an aging writer.
Readers are kept guessing until the murder is solved and, unlike much detective fiction, nothing is left unexplained. All the pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly. To make it all work, James' intricate plots can take a year to plan.
After setting, characters are next in importance, and the method of murder usually comes last, James said.
"The essentials -- who's been killed, why, where, how and by whom, come very gradually. The murder itself depends on the character. The method and the motive are absolutely linked," she said.
"People read her for this combination of very keen perceptions of different kinds of people and the way they look at the world, making people very vivid," said Charles Elliott, a London-based editor at Knopf who works with James on her fiction. "You do not have a problem of trying to remember who that person was just by names. She is extremely good at this richness of characterization."
In "The Lighthouse," Dalgleish has a very long list of suspects, all of whom share a silent, caustic vitriol for the victim.
Creating all the histories of suspects, villains and victims and plotting can take as long as the writing itself. James recalls sketching out a map of the island in her notebooks, complete with the different homes visited by Dalgleish.
To help with timing in her stories, James will act out certain elements of her plots. "Sometimes, if possible, I actually walk the distances and carry out the scenes, reenact them to see if it works," she said.
She also turns to outside assistance, such as forensic scientists, for help with details about the postmortem effects of a hanging, and a rock-climbing son-in-law to help with a riveting scene that has a detective rappelling down a rocky cliff.
"I love to do my own research. It is extraordinary how much there is to get right," said James, whose son-in-law showed her his climbing ropes and demonstrated how a climb is done. "When I finished it [the scene], I asked him to check it. That was the most important research, getting that climb absolutely right."
James, a fan of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Jane Austen, may be a mystery writer, but her fiction does not have the stylized glamour of gun play found in stories by such authors as Dashiell Hammett for example. If anything, her tales are more like those of John le Carre and Eric Ambler.
In "The Lighthouse," Dalgleish does what is rarely seen in mystery fiction. In viewing a murder weapon, he mulls the banality of such tools. "This was the reaction he had experienced before when contemplating a murder weapon: the ordinariness of steel, wood and rope and their terrible power," James writes.
A corpse, meanwhile, brutally reveals how a victim's humanity slips away: "the glazed eyes were half-open, giving him the look of sly malevolence, and there was a faint stink of urine from a stain on the trouser front, the final humiliation of sudden and violent death."
James prefers to write in longhand. She awakens every morning at 7 to write and then dictates after 10 a.m. to an assistant, who transcribes the author's words to a computer. The very process of dictation, said James, enables her to listen to her dialogue.
For James, though, the mystery genre may offer more than just entertainment and a thrill.
"One of the virtues about the mystery is they do tell us more ... about the social mores about the time in which they were written than the more prestigious literature," James said. In "The Lighthouse," characters debate the morality of animal testing, and discuss terrorism and SARs.
"She does quite a lot with religion, which is unusual for a crime writer ... the question about sin and the way it exists in the world, how you deal with it and how it exists in life," Elliott said.
But while a mystery can offer clues to a society's concerns of a certain period, conjuring up a good mystery in the post-9/11 world may be getting tougher.
"It makes it more difficult," James said. "All of us have experienced the reality of it. That makes fiction somehow less powerful. The reality is so powerful. We are all living with the reality."