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Why have a murder?

March 11, 2010

P.D. James, the author of the dystopian novel The Children of Men, first published in 1992, is also well known in her native England for a series of detective novels. Beginning with Cover Her Face, published in 1962, this series follows the casework of Adam Dalgliesh, a New Scotland Yard investigator. For her characters and settings, James draws on her experience working for the Home Office, the U.K.’s federal security sector.

James c. Random House

Though James’s work has been compared to the popular crime fiction of Agatha Christie, many critics have been quick to note some key differences. It is often argued that James’s later novels have a moral complexity, a stylistic beauty and a richness of setting that are unusual in the genre. [James] creates a thickly-realized social world” said literary critic Ralph C. Wood in an interview with Ken Myers. “Thus you feel like you’re entering a nineteenth century novel by Dickens or George Eliot or, above all, Jane Austen.”

James’s service in the Home Office gives an indication of why she chose to focus her writing talents on crime fiction, a genre that most literary scholars consider to be minor. In an interview with Ken Myers, James talks about her decision to center the action of her novels on murders:

“People often say, ‘Why have a murder? Why can’t you have some other crime?’ But I suppose murder packs such a terrific emotional punch. It is unique. It is the one crime for which we can never make reparation. And I think a book that is centered on just a burglary, or a theft, although it could be interesting in its own right, really wouldn’t satisfy people who enjoy murder mysteries. And I think they enjoy them for other psychological reasons, too. It’s a very reassuring fiction. It is reassuring to begin with– this underlying assumption that human life is sacred. And that even if a life is not well lived, or if someone is unpleasant or wicked, and his death would be highly convenient to many people, nevertheless, human beings have no right to take human life. And if they do, all the resources of the police and the state will be brought to bear to try and solve this crime. Now in an age where there’s a great deal of violence, and often it’s casual violence, and irrational violence, this is a very comforting belief.”

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