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Writer Reveals Mysteries of Her Craft at UCI Seminar

January 21, 1987|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

She doesn't look like the "Queen of Crime."

Passing out copies of her class outline to a group of writing students gathered at UC Irvine, British mystery writer P.D. James comes across as your genial great aunt come to visit on a holiday.

She's wearing a tan skirt and matching tan sweater over a rose-colored blouse. Her brown shoes are low-heeled and sensible. Her brown hair is conservatively coifed and her plastic-framed glasses thick and owlish.

Which just goes to prove that appearances can be deceiving.

This is, after all, the writer who, in 10 best-selling mystery novels published over the past 25 years, has dispatched her victims in a variety of coldblooded ways: hanging, poisoning, strangulation and, in the case of one disabled older gentleman, sabotaged wheelchair brakes that caused the poor fellow to run off a cliff.

In her latest best seller, "A Taste for Death," the two victims--an ex-member of Parliament and a tramp--have their throats slashed with a straight razor. The grisly murders take place in a church vestry.

"Often a murder is more horrific if it is in a peaceful setting," observes James, 66, gesturing with a black pen in one hand and a white hankie in the other. "So in your setting, remember the power of contrast. It can be extraordinarily potent."

The 20 writers were seated in a semicircle facing her, listening intently and dutifully taking notes. The class is Murder and Mystery: The Art of the Detective Story. And for three consecutive Tuesday evenings the celebrated James, a writer in residence at the university, will be their guide.

By the end of the first session last week, James had, in providing a brief history of the genre, demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of past and present mystery writers and their works. She also had begun her exploration into the essential ingredients--plot, characters, dialogue, clue making--that make a good mystery.

In the process, she offered her views on such topics as:

- Motives: "In the 1930 mysteries, all sorts of motives were credible which aren't credible today, especially motives of preventing guilty sexual secrets from coming out. Nowadays, people sell their guilty sexual secrets . . . it isn't regarded as a strong enough motive for this time. Money (however) is always a good motive. . . ."

- Writing a successful mystery: "What I want to emphasize, of course, is what we're talking about really is writing a novel. That's the most important thing of all to recognize and to understand--that the mystery is not a kind of sub-literary genre. A good mystery should be a good novel."

- The creative process: "With me, it is a very strange feeling indeed when I'm writing a book. It does seem to me as if the book and the characters, the plot--everything about the story--already exists outside myself in some limbo of the imagination, and what I am doing is getting in touch with it and getting it down on paper."

From the point of view of the writers in the class, who were chosen from among 60 applicants, it had been an eventful evening.

Observed La Habra retiree Bill Melton, a published writer who wants to try writing a mystery: "I figured if you can't learn from P.D. James, you can't learn from anybody."

She had left her four-story, 150-year-old Regency house in London's fashionable Holland Park district two days earlier and was now ensconced in UCI's new faculty housing complex--a cluster of cream-colored apartments on the outskirts of the campus.

Cheerfully greeting a mid-morning visitor to her temporary digs on the day of her first class, James immediately set about brewing a pot of coffee on an automatic coffee maker in the kitchen. "I drink tea in the morning, but I must say I enjoy coffee," she said.

With its freshly painted white walls and untrampled beige carpet, the furnished apartment has the feel of an unlived-in model home--except for the large dining room table.

Posters to Autograph

A plate of red apples had been set out on the center of the table and, on the far end, next to where James had neatly laid her class notes and two pens, was a stack of red-and-black posters that had been dropped off for her to autograph.

The posters announce her upcoming lecture, at 8 p.m. Friday at South Coast Community Church in Irvine, by proclaiming: "The Grande Dame of Mystery Returns!"

James, who lectured at UCI two years ago, laughed good-naturedly when asked how she feels about such appellations.

"Oh, yes: 'Grande Dame of Mystery,' 'the Queen of Crime,' 'Agatha Christie's Crown Princess,' " she said in her lilting English accent as she sat down at the table. "I don't think you like them or dislike them. It's a sort of journalistic thing."

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