In Person

P.D. James at Barnes & Noble Arboretum

"The moment, I think, in a mystery when the body is discovered is one of huge importance to the novel. I always describe it through the eyes, and therefore through the mind, through the senses of the character who actually does the discovering."

That's Baroness P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James, of Holland Park, expounding on her technique for creating those subtly alarming frissons of unease that ripple through her terribly British mystery novels -- 14 in all, not counting 1992's The Children of Men, less a mystery per se than a fable steeped in a distinctly Anglican C of E background -- and her love of murder most foul.

What's most unnerving, though, isn't the author's penchant for genteel Oxfordian criminalities, but her remarkable resemblance to your grandmother. Or mine. Speaking before a largish throng of devoted readers -- the majority of which, it should be said, appear to be over the age of 40, though a sprinkling of younger fans cluster here and there -- she looks like nothing so much as the kindly spinster next door, lavender summer dress, white hair, apple cheeks and all. She'll be 81 this coming August. Still, you'd hesitate to take tea with her. And those scones -- there's an odd undertaste, isn't there? Best to just sit and listen, then.

Alongside such contemporaries as the late Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, James is one of the great ladies of British mystery writing. Her newest novel, Death in Holy Orders (Knopf, $25) again features New Scotland Yard detective-cum-amateur-poet Adam Dalgliesh and is, by the author's own reckoning, one of her favorites. Unsurprisingly, there are several murders, and James' trademark eye for the details of place -- this time St. Anselm's theological school, situated atop the windswept and thoroughly treacherous East Anglian coastline -- draws you into what initially appears to be an otherwise quiet and reflective setting. And then the body of a student is discovered and soon someone knocks off an archdeacon. So much for tea and crumpets.

There's a tendency for a certain type of mystery fan to regard James' very proper whodunnits as an anachronism, somehow best left to a time when Britannia ruled "o'er all the waves" and Agatha Christie was perched atop the bestseller lists. You can almost see the James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss contingents smirking in the background. Thanks in part to the success of public television's popular Mystery series -- which has adapted a brace of James' novels to the small screen featuring Roy Marsden as the taciturn Dalgliesh -- James' popularity has rarely waned in the 39 years since her first novel Innocent Blood was published.

Returning to an analysis of the scene of the crime, James notes that each horrific discovery is something particular and specific to whichever of her characters first stumbles across it. For instance, she says, in her novel A Taste for Death, "the body is found by a gentle spinster and of course she is absolutely horrified by this great welter of blood, and in my description the words 'blood, blood, blood' are reiterated.

"In Devices and Desires, however, when Dalgliesh finds the body, he acts from the very beginning as a policeman and it's a very different discovery. It's a tremendously important moment in the novel, however, and a very horrifying one, and I think the reader should share that horror."

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P.D. James, Death in Holy Orders: An Adam Dagliesh Mystery

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