In the dead of night, a tale of snobbery and violence

Authors with daggers drawn: Gulf between old guard and new wave of crime-writing exposed by P D James's views on class
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The Independent Online
MARY BRAID

The row began quietly, in the dead of night with a 2.30am radio interview on the BBC World Service. At that hour few were around to hear PD James, one of British crime-writing's most famous practitioners, theorising on the nature of the genre.

Few except Chaz Brenchley - insomniac and fellow crime writer. What he heard "horrified" him and has sparked a bitter three-month row which has exposed the gulf between crime writing's old guard and its rising young turks.

Until yesterday it remained a private matter, confined to Red Herrings, the monthly magazine of the Crime Writers' Association. One senior member said the CWA had been terrified of a "public relations disaster" if the row became public or James carried out a threat - implicit in a letter to the magazine - to resign.

In the controversial interview James said the detective story - with a well-educated and clever murderer usually at the centre - was often criticised as "snobbery with violence". But she argued that "in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don't get moral choice, you don't get contrasts between good and evil..." - essential elements in the detective story.

That infuriated colleagues who favour inner-city settings and working- class heroes. Yesterday, Mark Timlin, one of crime writing's rising stars, said James comments typified his reason for tearing up his membership of the "snobbish and stuffy" CWA. It was, he said, dominated by old duffers, out of tune with society and "realistic" trends in crime writing.

"I was asked recently to rejoin," he said. "I think I said I would rather stick needles in my eyes. The meeting I attended was more horrendous than any crime story I have ever read or written."

Nick Sharman, Timlin's fictional private detective, bears no resemblance to Adam Dalgliesh, the urbane, cultivated middle-class detective and some- time poet at the centre of James's crime mysteries.

Sharman is working-class; a university drop-out and drug taker. "Quite frankly the Dalgliesh books bore me. Where do I connect with this poetry writing detective? The only poetry Sharman sees is the kind he finds on the walls on men's toilets when he is being violently ill after drinking or taking drugs," Timlin said.

"Phyllis is talking a lot of nonsense ... I write about the reality I see on the streets of south London. Sharman has to leave the police because he is caught stealing confiscated drugs, but he still has his own morals. He is a lone vigilante."

Timlin's formula may be radically different from that of PD James, but it is successful. Sharman, like Dalgliesh, has been adapted for television.

Timlin may well find some kindred spirits now in the association. Crime writer Val McDermid, a committee member, sets her novels in Manchester with Kate Brannigan, a female private eye, and Alexis Lee, her gay journalist pal, as the central characters. Brannigan is the daughter of a car plant worker and Lee was raised in a council house.

Yesterday, she rejected the claim only middle-class characters were capable of moral choice. "I'm inclined to the view that people in comfortable middle class settings wouldn't know a moral choice if it bit them on the leg," she said.

Brenchley, also a committee member, was yesterday fighting shy of the media. But Julian Rathbone, successful author of 24 books, whom James accused - along with Brenchley - of trying to act as her "inquisitor or moral judge", said he stuck by his criticism.

Despite James's insistence that the accusation she believed only middle- class people were capable of moral choice was too silly for rebuttal, he said she had yet to straighten out things and was squirming.

Yesterday, Peter Walker, CWA chairman, insisted the row was " a storm in a teacup" and that James had been misunderstood.

But Maxim Jakubowski, crime write and owner of Murder One, Britain's only crime writers' bookshop, said it was more than that. "It reflects some of the problems at the heart of the CWA," he said."The row reflects the division between younger realistic writers and the old guard."

He said rumours were circulating among the association's 400 members that James was going to resign. "She is letting down the whole side by taking the criticism so seriously."

Class and the British crime writer: Six case histories

PD James

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (published 1972); The Black Tower (1975); Death Of An Expert Witness (1977).

Born in Oxford in 1920. Educated at Cambridge Girls High School, and served in Home Office for 11 years. JP in Willesden, London. Governor of the BBC. Baroness.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard: a tall, dark and handsome character who knows his wines. Cordelia Grey, an upper-class female private investigator.

Incestuous relationships. The underdog often comes out on top. High politically correct content; not afraid to tackle animal rights issues.

Highly acclaimed from the start. Acknowledged to have a strong influence on other

female crime writers.

Middle-class heroes; middle-class readers

Ruth

Rendell

Wolf To The Slaughter (1967); A Judgement In Stone (1977); A Fatal Inversion (1987). Also publishes under pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Middle-class upbringing and education at Loughton High School, Essex. Reporter and sub-editor on provincial newspapers before becoming an author.

Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. Like many Rendell characters, he has flaws, but in essence is a man of probity.

Key figure has disastrous childhood upbringing which has terrible consequences in adulthood.

Massive. Many believe she elevated crime-writing into the realms of literature.

Pan-class appeal, largely through TV dramatisations

Edgar

Wallace

Author of 170 books including The Four Just Men (1905), The Mind Of JG Reeder (1925), Crimson Circle (1922), The Fellowship of the Frog (1925).

Thunderingly lower class.

Illegitimate, and abandoned as a baby. Brought up by a fishmonger in Billingsgate. An ex-Daily Mail journalist who served in the Army.

Middle-class, tough, ex-army types. Also the eccentric, bespectacled JG Reeder. Hero always an exceedingly intelligent and witty character.

Vast family complications. Hero related to villain. Culminates with all branches of the armed forces besieging a house.

Very little in his own lifetime, but now one of the best-loved writers in the world. In the

early 20th Century, his books were outsold only by the Bible

His middle-class lifestyle in later life betrayed his origins.

Agatha

Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); The A.B.C. Murders (1936); Death On The Nile (1937).

Very middle class. Privately educated at home. Studied music in Paris, married and divorced a colonel.Was made a DBE.

No archetype. Central characters ranged from Hercule Poirot, a monstrous snob and tidiness freak, to Miss Jane Marple, a nicely nosy spinster.

Peerlessly original. The author as devious puppeteer.

Mistress of misdirection.

Poison usually figured in the plot.

Widely recognised as the cleverest writer of crime this century.

Beloved of maiden aunts.

Henry

Wade

The Verdict of You All (1926); The Duke of York's Steps (1929); A Dying Fall (1955).

Unashamedly upper-class. Educated at Eton. Mentioned in war dispatches. High Sheriff of Bucks in 1925. Used the pseudonym Henry Lancelot Aubrey- Fletcher.

An intelligent policeman

battling against the idiocy

of his superiors upstairs.

Murderer gets away with

murder. Plots had a sense

of upper-class baronet

attacking the legal system.

Slight in his day, but now recognised as one of most important crime writers in the 20th Century.

Attacked the upper classes from the inside.

Mike Phillips

Blood Lights (1988); The Late Candidate (1991); Point of Darkness (1994).

Born in Guyana. Lived in homeless shelter when he first came to Britain. Lecturer at Central London Polytechnic before becoming a full- time writer.

Sam Dean, a hard-boiled black London investigator working in and around

Brixton.

An involuntary investigator - a journalist perhaps - helps friends expose corruption

and crime.

Won prestigious crime writers' Silver Dagger Award in 1991 for his second book. Very hot author.

Immense street cred.

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