Leading Article: A middle-classy sort of dame

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The Independent Online
British crime literature is stuffed with literate detectives and criminals with doctorates. They can tell their arias from their recitatives, they write poetry and they swap erudite clues, culled from the pages of obscure books. They are - even some of the more modern ones - invincibly well-educated and thoughtful. And now we know why.

The beans were spilled this summer by the crime writer Chaz Brenchley, who one night overheard a very revealing conversation. Long after midnight Baroness James of Devices and Desires, former governor of the BBC and best selling 'tec author, was explaining to HRF Keating (of Inspector Ghote fame) on the BBC World Service why her characters were so fantastically middle-class. It was, she explained, a question of exploring moral choice. Educated, intelligent people exercised a more interesting choice, when deciding to commit acts of violence and murder, than do denizens of those inner-city pits "where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace". In such areas the contrast between good and evil is not a sharp one.

Some of the Baroness's crime-writing colleagues are very unhappy about this. Rumour has it that this critical stiletto between the shoulder blades has so incensed PD that she has threatened to quit the Crime Writers' Association, flinging her Diamond Dagger award into a local canal on her way out.

But is she right? If she were it could explain the extraordinary popularity of cathedral close and country town crime in this country. The buyers of books themselves might well be endorsing the Jamesian view of the moral universe. Perhaps they too find the idea of the working-class murderer too commonplace to be interesting.

The American novelist Raymond Chandler once described this concentration on the criminal activities of the upper and upper middle classes as "snobbery with violence". He argued murder should be put back where it belonged - on the mean streets. Presumably our willingness to buy into this false world of genteel mayhem would, in Chandler's eyes, reflect our own continuing class obsessions.

And PD James's universe does seem oddly circumscribed. Between the pleasant world of her characters - who spend much of their time commuting between desirable flats in London and even more desirable cottages in Norfolk, who attend poetry readings on the South Bank and whose holidays are spent in raptures before paintings in Venice's Accademia - and the perpetually violent world of the worst sink estates, lie the lands that most of us inhabit. In these lands are millions of working-class and middle-class people for whom crime would be as much a moral choice as for any havering poet or aristocratic philosopher.