Writing a mystery is hard. Writing the perfect mystery is impossible–at least for me (spoken from abject experience.) But the great P.D. James performed this feat of magic again and again, and no one made it look simpler or did it with more elegance.
I was just reading her obituary in the New York Times, and was startled by this comment she made on her work: “Almost always the idea for a book comes to me as a reaction to a particular place. I like to create in books some kind of opposition between places and characters.”
I’ve never seen that idea put into words before, and yet I immediately recognize myself in it. A particular sense of place is where I always start, and my novels can only take place where they do. My very good friend, who reads widely and teaches lit, cringes at the notion that setting can “be a character”, but hey. For me, it’s an essential catalyst, a force for my characters to respond to or against. Witness:
Fox Street–the title says it all
Just A Second , my work in progress, is set in a neighborhood that clings to the side of a hill, with two very different worlds bordering it on top and at the foot. Nella, my hero, is waiting for the landslide that will change everything–and it comes.
In these stories, the settings nurture or squash, cradle or imprison, and they supply much of the friction. It’s something I’ve been aware of, but because I think of my work as character-driven, I guess I didn’t really look at how important that “opposition between places and characters” is to me. Thank you, Baroness James, for all those perfect mysteries, and for giving me yet another thing to think about.