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'Queen of Crime' Holds Court for Student Writers

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 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 coiffed 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 cold-blooded ways: hanging, poisoning, strangulation and, in the case of one disabled older gentleman, sabotaged wheelchair brakes, which caused the poor fellow to run off the edge of a cliff.

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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 grizzly murders take place in a church vestry.

"Often a murder is more horrific if it is in a peaceful setting," observed James, 66. "So in your setting, remember the power of contrast. It can be extraordinarily potent."

The 20 writers, seated in a semi-circle facing her, listen intently, 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, is 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 it is 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, 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 the university's new faculty housing complex.

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' three-week stay at UC Irvine, however, is actually somewhat of a respite. She has been promoting "A Taste for Death" at home and abroad since it was published in England in June. The book marks the return of her popular poet-detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard.

While acknowledging that "you cannot teach people who have no creative writing ability to write"--James emphasized the techniques peculiar to writing mysteries can be taught.

"Absolutely," she said. "Put at its lowest level, for example, the question is when does the murder take place? Anybody who is going to have a murder mystery--which is going to be a real mystery with clues and a denouement--and you don't get to the corpse until near three-quarters of the way is going to be a book that is structurally out of sync."

But what's more important than whether someone takes a writing class, James maintains, "is the talent, the originality and the energy to do it. And the persistance to do it."

James said she never took any writing classes herself. And, although she had read widely all her life and had literary ambitions at an early age, she did not begin writing until she was in her mid-30s.

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