Tell Me a Story! P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009
by Helen Currie Foster
“Tell me a story,” begs the child.
“Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.
“Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.
“Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.
“Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.
As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.
Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”
“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]
Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.
Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?
We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.
Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.