Fantasy for the moment Plot thickens as mystery writer P. D. James peers darkly into the future


Washington--Even scrambled eggs have a certain flair when you're Breakfasting With the Baroness. The morning coffee goes down strong and flavorful, and wheat toast takes on an almost palpable je ne sais quoi.

"I just love a good breakfast," says a smiling Baroness James of Holland Park, also known as P. D. James, one of the world's great mystery writers. "Take orange juice -- what a way to start the day. You can't get good orange juice like this in England."

It's rainy and rotten outside this Friday morning, but inside the quiet elegance of the Four Seasons Hotel, 72-year-old Phyllis Dorothy James is cheerfully beginning another day on the publicity mill. She's in this country for a few weeks to boost her most recent book, "The Children of Men," a dark tale of a declining world set in the near future. She's proving to be a delightful and charming dining companion, as well as an intriguing interview.

There's much to talk about. Take the critical reaction to "The Children of Men," a decided departure for the Baroness of Holland Park (so designated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991).

Through a remarkable 10 books featuring the poetry-quoting detective Adam Dalgliesh, she's become a towering figure in contemporary mysteries, with reviews to die for and sales on both sides of the Atlantic that would fatten anyone's bank account. It's particularly impressive considering that for many years Ms. James balanced her writing career with one as a civil servant, and that her first mystery, "Cover Her Face," was not published until she was 41.

With "The Children of Men," she's gotten her usual accolades -- the New York Times called it "extraordinary" -- but some critics have decided that by straying from the mystery, she's gone and mucked things up.

When the novel was published in England in September, reviewer Piers Paul Read complained in the Times of London: "There is no relief from the deadly earnestness with which the author treats her gloomy subject." Other reviewers have suggested she has no business writing fantasy or science fiction.

All of this, the baroness says, was something she expected.

"Oh, yes, I did," she asserts briskly. "It has been interesting. The people who have taken a sort of personal resentment haven't reviewed the book so much as show they were distressed that I have switched genres. Very odd, very odd. But there it is. You just take the reviews as they come -- and I do."

Whether her readers, who are known as among the most loyal in book publishing, will accept her genre-switching remains to be seen.

"People who love P. D. James really love P. D. James, and they do not often read a lot of the other mystery writers," says Paige Rose, co-owner of the Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point. "I'm very interested to see the reaction to the new book. We'll carry it, but I don't know if some of her fans will want to read it.

"Many times, readers get bent out of shape when a mystery writer moves out of genre. Take [Maryland-born mystery writer] Martha Grimes. Last year we sold hardly any of her non-mystery 'The End of the Pier.' I wonder if that's going to happen in this case."

But Ms. James says she was heartened the previous night to see a few hundred fans trek out in a nasty rainstorm for a book-signing in suburban Virginia.

And, she says, while spooning orange marmalade on wheat toast, "I think my fans will be very supportive about it. . . . Obviously, I could have written another Dalgliesh -- it would have been a lucrative thing to do -- but I needed to write this book. It was an idea that I felt strongly about writing."

She adds quickly, "It certainly doesn't mean that I'm giving up mysteries, though, because I feel that the mystery is my natural genre.

"I love writing them, I love discussing them. I have never felt that I was writing in an inferior form. I suppose the reason I don't feel that way is that I have had such critical success. And I've taken good care of my life -- I've never had to write a book because if I didn't, I wouldn't get paid."

But, in a sense, she did have to write this one. "I couldn't say anymore, 'Someday I'll write it,' " Ms. James continues breezily. "If you're going to write it, write it. I mean, I'm 72 years old now. And it was interesting to do something so technically different."

The idea for "The Children of Men" came from a newspaper story she read a few years ago about a sharp decline in the sperm count of Western men. That set her to wondering: What would society be like if it could not continue itself?

Depressing as all get-out, should be the conclusion of most readers of "The Children of Men." No baby has been born in the world since October 1995; by 2021, the year in which the novel is set, there are organized mass suicides of elderly people and faked christenings of kittens, as well as women desperately trying to experience motherhood by parading dolls around in strollers.

Theo Faron, an Oxford professor who reluctantly joins a group of dissidents trying to fight the autocratic leader of England, notes in his diary the human race's inability to reproduce: "We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause." In the end, a baby is born in England, and the government begins a ruthless hunt to find it.

There are several powerful themes in "The Children of Men," most notably faith and redemption, and the way societies perceive themselves. This is one of the delicious ironies to P. D. James -- underneath the good humor and warmth, she is obsessed with the dark and disturbing.

"The parenting impulse is so strong, so important," she says, "but think what it would be like if there were no children, if we could not renew ourselves. In this book, I was imagining what that world would be like -- that universal lethargy, that total lack of hope. And that is what would happen."

When she concludes her publicity tour, it's back to the writing of another Adam Dalgliesh novel. She admits that, as a plot device, she's toyed with the idea of killing Dalgliesh off, but quickly decided that if she tired of him, he'd simply retire.

"I'm not in love with him or anything like that," she says. "But he has earned a decent retirement."

And so has Dalgliesh's creator, but she's still composing her intricately plotted, finely crafted mysteries.

Don't tell P. D. James she's been slumming by writing detective stories. To her, they're hard, hard work.

"Oh my," she says. "The so-called 'straight' novel is easier to write than a good mystery, I think. Once you've got the plot, it's a linear book that drives straight ahead to the end. Whereas constructing the mystery is much more complex.

"You've got at least five or six casualties. You've got to have motive, means, opportunity, structure, plot. You've got to change viewpoint, which I do. You have to keep eternal tension high and you've got to come up with a credible denouement. And it's got to be intellectually stimulating.

"It's very difficult to do well."

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